Have you ever seen birds sitting on the backs of some of your favorite large animals?

These birds are called oxpeckers, and you can often find them perched on a rhino or a zebra, among other animals. Oxpeckers are no free riders – they actually are in a symbiotic relationship with these animals, which means that both species live together and benefit one another. 

Oxpeckers graze exclusively on the bodies of many animals, including, but not limited to, warthogs, impalas, giraffes, buffalos, zebras, and rhinos. They mainly feed on ticks and other small insects, which acts as a form of pest control for the host animals. Oxpeckers will also feed on the blood and wounds of their hosts. Some have argued that this slows down the healing process of the injury, while others believe that it keeps the wounds clean and speeds up the healing process. These conflicting statements have led to ongoing debates about whether or not the oxpeckers should actually be classified as parasites, but no official labeling change has been made yet.  

Despite ongoing debates about the true nature of this relationship, both species have been observed to receive benefits. Aside from cleaning their hosts of bugs, the oxpeckers act as a built-in alarm system to warn their hosts of potential dangers. Oxpeckers will often hiss, scream, or fly upwards to alert their hosts of an incoming threat. On the other hand, the oxpecker is far more dependent on the host, as it will spend most of its life on the hosts’ body. Aside from having a relatively stable food source, the host offers the oxpeckers a protective cloak from many large predators. The next time you go on an African safari, bring your binoculars to see if you can spot this unique duo!