Bring back the oxpecker!

Dipping against ticks almost eradicated red-billed oxpeckers in SA. Now that ticks are displaying dip resistance, the oxpecker – which can eat 13 000 nymphs a day – may be farmers’ best friend. David Steynberg reports.
Issue date : 22 August 2008

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January the National Zoological Gardens in Mokopane, Limpopo, successfully captive-bred a red-billed oxpecker. zoo recently unveiled its custom facility for the breeding and relocating of this endangered species. “It’s vital to conserve the oxpecker because it plays a very important role in tick management,” says Afrivet managing director Dr Peter Oberem. “Ticks can ensure 25kg of the meat is lost at slaughter due to blood loss and appetite loss, because the blue tick’s saliva contains a toxin that suppresses appetite.”

Ticks also carry diseases that affect cattle’s reproductive organs and damage their skin, downgrading their leather, summarises Oberem. A ccording to the zoo, the dips used by livestock farmers to protect their livestock against ticks poisoned large numbers of oxpeckers, that fed on the ticks. “The red-billed oxpecker was almost eradicated in SA.” says Mark Howitt, head of the Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre. “Most are now found in Botswana. They’ve only recently started to move back into SA with reported sightings in Nylstroom.”

This can be attributed to the use of more oxpecker-friendly dips. “livestock farmer recently told me he had oxpeckers on his property, and has therefore drastically reduced dipping because it isn’t as necessary anymore,” Howitt says. “single oxpecker can eat up to 13 000 nymphs a day. They’re ferocious feeders and constantly need ticks to eat – at the facility we’ve seen them eat 30 ticks in 30 minutes.” While it’s widely believed that red-billed oxpeckers prefer the blue tick, the centre is also studying their diet.

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“It seems the blue tick has also built up resistance to dips,” Howitt says, and Dr Peter confirms it, saying: “About 99% of resistance is being observed in the blue tick.” rnaud le Roux of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Wildlife Conflict Prevention Group, and head of Operation Oxpecker, says ticks are showing resistance because farmers don’t rotate dips, allowing the ticks to adapt to the dips’ active ingredients.

The facility
The Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre currently has five custom-designed enclosures, each divided into an accommodation section and the host animal interaction section. “We use a donkey as the host animal because they’re easy to work with,” Howitt says. “The donkey is only kept in an enclosure for one hour once a week.” he birds not only eat the donkey’s ticks, but also preen it and use its hair as nesting material. “In the wild, oxpeckers nest in hollows in trees and line the inside with hair,” Howitt says. “They breed from October to March and roost up to three times a year. They can hatch two to three eggs per roost.” Incubation lasts 12 days and fledglings leave the nest after 30 days, says Howitt. “We only keep two birds per enclosure at an equal sexing ratio of one male to one female,” Howitt says. “They’re very aggressive with a strong sense of hierarchical dominance, where either the male or the female will stamp down its authority. We’ve just gotten a new male hatchling and we’re interested to see how he’ll affect the hierarchy in that enclosure.”

How the project works
The EWT helped the zoo capture wild red-billed oxpeckers in 2007, not only for breeding, but also to research their symbiotic feeding behaviour and feeding preferences regarding four species of tick. L e Roux says oxpeckers captured in the Limpopo Valley have been relocated to KZN and the Northern Cape. “The objective is to phase out oxpecker-unfriendly dips and replace them with friendlier products, then to lessen dip-dependence by phasing in the oxpecker, when its numbers are higher,” says Le Roux. “The optimal number of dips per year depends on whether the farm is in the drier western areas of SA or the wetter eastern half.”

However, despite the oxpecker-friendly dips on the market, farmers still insist on mixing their own homebrews. “It’s mostly commercial livestock farmers that are guilty of this, not the emerging sector,” says Le Roux. “Apart from this being illegal, it also destroys the animal’s carcass and milk.” O berem says registered dip products have undergone stringent testing to ensure the safety and health of both the animal and the end user of milk and meat products. “Homebrews may contain chemicals that leave harmful and long-lasting residues in the animal,” Oberem says. e Roux, however, says the oxpecker is not the sole solution in tick control, and encourages farmers to apply proper veld management.

“Farmers have to be managers of a holistic system,” he says. “The oxpecker is just one tool in a very big toolbox.” Contact Mark Howitt on (015) 491 4314. |fw • Dipping against ticks almost eradicated red-billed oxpeckers in SA. Now that ticks are displaying dip resistance, the oxpecker – which can eat 13 000 nymphs a day – may be farmers’ best friend. David Steynberg reports. Bring back the oxpecker! 22 22 August 2008 | farmer’s weekly above: The zoo’s red-billed oxpeckers are housed in five custom-built enclosures. National Zoological Gardens of South Africa below: Red-billed oxpecker numbers were seriously threatened by toxic, non-friendly cattle dips. rnaud Le Roux, Endangered Wildlife Trust