The oxpecker (Buphagus africanus) or tickbird is the most recognizable bird that feeds on the insects living on the hide of animals. The oxpecker is native to Africa where it scrounges for food on the ground and on the backs of large mammals. The birds and the animals they feed off of have a mutually beneficial relationship; while the parasites and insects living on the animal's hide sustain the birds, the birds alert the animal to nearby danger with a distinctive hissing.
Large mammals serve as the best perch for the birds; because of their size the animals harbor more insects and offer a larger area for the birds to cling onto. Big game animals in Africa can be seen with an oxpecker riding atop. These include rhinoceros, giraffe, water buffalo or any other animal large enough to accommodate the bird.
The oxpecker family includes two different species; the yellow-billed oxpecker and red-billed oxpecker. The two species are distinguishable from each other by the color of their bills, but both follow the same feeding patterns. They cling to the top of the animal and peck at parasites and fleas living on the animal's skin. But the birds are not solely dependent on the animals for food, they also feed on insects living on the ground and can attack airborne bugs as they fly by.
Bird and Beast Relationship
Oxpeckers benefit the animals that feed them by providing a warning when danger is nearby. The warning is a hissing sound, distinctive from ordinary chirps or squawks of other nearby birds. But the birds are not completely beneficial to the animals, because as they peck at the animal's hide they open sores on the flesh. With continuous pecking these sores stay open and become slow to heal, making the skin vulnerable to infection.
The two oxpecker species are the only birds that perch directly on the animals and feed. But other species take advantage of animal activity to find sustenance. The cattle egret, a type of heron that lives along the southern U.S. coast and throughout Central and South America, eats the bugs from the ground and from the animal's flesh that are disturbed by movement.