Oxpeckers and Woodpeckers

The variety of birds in Southern Africa is astounding. The variations of colour,  behaviour and movements make us humans appear positively tame by comparison


In southern Africa we have two types of Oxpecker, the red and yellow-billed. The bills of these two species are slightly different with the Yellow-billed Oxpecker having a stouter bill for plucking parasites and ticks off their host while the Red-billed Oxpecker has a  smaller more flattened bills for combing or scissoring through their hosts hair. The next shot shows Red-billed Oxpeckers scissoring through a bull Giraffe’s hide.

Other hosts can be very big. A small flock of Red-billed oxpeckers do a fine cleaning job on the Giraffe bull's neck.

Other hosts can be very big. A small flock of Red-billed Oxpeckers do a fine cleaning job on the Giraffe bull’s neck.

The Yellow-billed Oxpecker looks and behaves in a very similar way to its Red-billed cousin. The two-tone colour of the bill and its red eye are distinguishing features of the Yellow-billed Oxpecker, as is its larger bill. The Red-billed Oxpecker has a yellow ring around its eye. These birds do a wonderful job providing a personal hygiene service for many animal plagued with ticks and parasites and they clean up open sores sipping the blood in the process.

Yellow-billed Oxpecker on a Buffalo's back.

Yellow-billed Oxpecker on a Buffalo’s back.

Oxpeckers nest in natural holes or  broken branch stumps of trees and are prone to Harrier-hawk raids. They often use the hair of their hosts as nest lining in their cup-shaped nests.


These birds can be difficult to photograph because they are usually out of the sun behind the dead branch searching for insects. It is a question of being patient and watching for the bird to hopefully come out into the sun. The colouring of these birds is usually beautiful with reds, blacks and golden tails. I was lucky enough to spot a pair of Bennett’s Woodpeckers foraging on the ground at Pretoriuskop in the Kruger Park. This pair hopped around eating ants and the male even climbed a stone wall to get at the ants in a crack.

Male Bennett's Woodpecker

Male Bennett’s Woodpecker

It is not often you see a Woodpecker. Usually you hear them first tapping on a dead branch. They are either searching for insects,  hollowing out a nest or tapping on the dead branch in avian morse code communication. This is how I found this little Cardinal Woodpecker in Borokalalo. It is always difficult to  get a clean shot as they are usually high up in the tree with lots of dead branches in the way.

Male Cardinal Woodpecker with whatr looks like a punk red hairstyle. It also has the small black mostashe which differentiates it from its Golden-tailed cousin.

Male Cardinal Woodpecker with what looks like a punk red hairstyle. It also has the small black moustache which differentiates it from its Golden-tailed cousin.

I have a long way to go to get my ideal woodpecker shots and to achieve full species coverage but that is part of the fun.

In early ,May I am off on a photographic trip to the Chobe with Coetzer Nature Photography. The link will give you an idea of what kind of photography is possible on the river.


I hope you enjoy the additions.

The bush is waiting for you – make space for it!

Best wishes


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