Birds of Prey Programme

Operation Oxpecker Project

Oxpeckers were once numerous in South Africa. An increase in the hunting of Big 5 game species and an outbreak of Rinderpest in the early 1900s severely affected the numbers of their host species, such as rhino and buffalo. With the increasing use of cattle dips containing arsenic, leading to the death of oxpeckers feeding on dipped cattle, their numbers declined even further. Currently, the use of dips that contain organophosphates and home brews (where farmers mix chemicals to make their own home-made dips) is the main reason for the loss of Oxpeckers.

The aim of the Operation Oxpecker project is to ensure the conservation of Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers in South Africa. The project also looks at expanding the populations into areas within the birds’ historic range where they no longer occur before the introduction of Oxpecker incompatible ectoparasiticides.

Oxpecker populations will continue to decline as a result of the use of incompatible ectoparasiticides. Red-billed Oxpeckers also damage livestock and game species through the aggravation of wounds when tick loads are low to supplement their diets, causing conflict with livestock and game farmers. Operation Oxpecker staff work with farmers towards finding solutions to these problems. In some cases, this involves removing Red-billed Oxpeckers from areas where they are numerous and relocating them to areas within their historic range where they no longer occur. Over 500 birds have been moved successfully in 21 capture and relocation events since 2007.

Before the birds can be relocated to an area, Operation Oxpecker staff need to ensure that the landowners in the area are all using Oxpecker compatible pesticides and are keen to have oxpeckers in the area. The site also needs to be assessed in terms of its suitability to sustain populations of Red-billed Oxpeckers, such as a sufficient food source and adequate nesting sites. Once this has been established the birds can be released into the new area. The project also involves post-release monitoring of the birds to determine the success of the relocation.

The project will also be initiating research projects looking at the historic and current distributions of Oxpeckers in South Africa and the efficacy of Red-billed Oxpeckers in the control of ticks on game and cattle.