oxpecker, common name for an African starling of the genus Buphagus. Also known as tickbirds, oxpeckers have very short legs and sharp claws, which aid them in perching on the backs of large mammals, both wild and domesticated. The animal host pays no heed to them, and only the elephant seems not to tolerate them. Oxpeckers use their broad, thick, laterally flattened beaks to pick at and feed on skin parasites such as ticks and embedded larvae. They also pick at scabs, often opening and enlarging wounds, and probably obtain their main nourishment from the blood from these wounds rather than from the ticks. Although these birds are valuable from the standpoint of ridding domesticated animals of ticks, they also feed on tick-free game and become debilitating parasites themselves. Nevertheless, they protect wild game from danger by setting up rattling cries, which alert the animals to the presence of predators. There are two species of oxpeckers, both about 9 in. (23 cm) long, with brown plumage and lacking distinctive markings. The slightly larger yellow-billed oxpecker ( B. africanus ), found from Senegal to Ethiopia and E South Africa, has a yellow, red-tipped bill, while that of the purely African red-billed oxpecker ( B. erythrorhychus ) is totally red. Oxpeckers are so highly adapted to life on their hosts that even courtship behavior and copulation occur upon the host animal's back. The hair of the animal is used to line the bird's nest, built usually in a tree by the yellow-billed oxpecker or a rock-hole by the red-billed. Females lay three to five white to pale blue, brown-spotted eggs per clutch. Oxpeckers are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Passeriformes, family Sturnidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.