Oxpeckers birds on the back of Hippos at Khwai river
Oxpeckers birds on the back of Hippos at Khwai river

Why Do Birds Sit On Hippos?

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  • Post category:Hippos
  • Post last modified:14 October 2021
  • Reading time:7 mins read

Since hippos can’t reach every corner of their massive body, many parasites and ticks cause health problems. The birds you see sitting on the hippos are plucking parasites, ticks, ear wax and dead skin off their back. These little birds known as oxpeckers are doing the hippopotamuses a massive favour. These birds feed on the parasite, ticks off the hippos back, and sound an alarm if they notice any threat.

What Is the Relationship Between the Oxpecker and The Hippopotamus?

Relationship between Oxpecker and the Hippos

Hippos and the oxpecker birds have an inter-species togetherness where the beautiful oxpecker birds are on the backs of a hippopotamus. These hippos offer these cute birds a treat of ticks, parasites and dead skin. From that, you can well imagine the vital relationship that the oxpeckers and the hippopotamus share with each other. 

It is a win-win situation for both. While the oxpeckers help the hippos get rid of the pesky bugs, ticks, dead skin and ear wax, the hippos intern offer these birds easy meals.

But the story does not end there. Even though the oxpeckers feast on the bugs and ticks off of the hippos back, they do so with a healthy helping of their blood. As these birds keep on drinking blood from the sores of these animals, it can reduce the healing process. However, it’s still best for the hippos to have these birds rather than not. 

Oxpeckers do more than just cleaning the bugs for the hippopotamuses. They also sound alarms when and if they spot any danger. That creates a secondary warning system for the gigantic animals.


There are two types of oxpeckers that you can see in the wild. One species has red beaks, while another species has yellow beaks.

  • Yellow-billed oxpecker (Buphagus africanus)
  • Red-billed oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorynchus)

Both of the oxpeckers ride on hippos, rhinos, zebras, giraffes, and other larger animals to feed on the ticks and bugs. 

These birds often choose their hosts depending on the number of ticks they have on their bodies.  

The oxpeckers tend to drink blood from the sores of their hosts. It is not their prime requirement. This theory supports the fact that the relationship that oxpeckers and hippos share is generally mutualistic.

Where do Oxpeckers live?

Even though you can spot several oxpeckers riding on the backs of hippos and other larger animals in Africa for a long time, researchers believe that these birds were extinct. 

Between the late 1802 and 1979, could not spot the oxpeckers in the wildness of South Africa. In 1979, the birds again appeared in the Kruger National Park.

Today, you can spot the yellow-billed oxpeckers almost everywhere in the sub-Saharan region of Africa. Not only that, these birds are easily spotted in the West and Eastern sections of Africa. However, these birds are not found in the desert areas and the rainforest of the region.

The red-billed oxpeckers are mostly spotted in the Eastern side of Africa. As both the yellow and the red-billed oxpeckers live in the eastern zone, you can spot both species in certain parts of the African wilderness. 

The oxpecker birds do not fight against each other due to territorial issues and can sometimes even share their hosts.

The Lifespan of The Oxpeckers

The oxpeckers generally live for about 15 years, which is quite impressive when you consider their size. 

The interesting fact about the oxpeckers is that they mate for life. During the mating season, one breeding pair lays eggs while a couple of individual birds help the pair to raise the young. Most of the time, these parasite-eating birds create their nest in tree cavities. Sometimes they choose vacated Woodpecker holes as their nest. The female generally lays 2-3 eggs, which they incubate for a couple of weeks.

Once the eggs hatch, the helpers and the parents take turns to rear and feed the chicks, the babies start to fly on their own when they are about 25 days of age. 

One of the random things about the oxpecker is that these birds often mate when they are sitting on the hippopotamuses or other host animals.

Oxpeckers Facts

As you can spot these birds on the backs of the hippopotamuses, these tick-eating birds are also known as Hippo Birds.

Even though the two species of oxpeckers do not fight with each other for territorial disputes, these birds can be pretty aggressive when it comes to their food. You can often see oxpeckers fighting with each other to get the best and the juiciest of ticks of the backs of their hosts. If you spot a large group of oxpeckers sitting on the back of a hippopotamus, the chances are you will soon be able to witness a scuffle.

The oxpeckers have powerful claws and a robust tail. These physical features give these birds the required stability. That is why these Birds can ride with ease on their large host even when it is moving.

These birds not only eat ticks from the back of the hippos, but it also removes bugs and other parasites from their mouth. You can find hippos keeping their mouth open for a long time so that these birds can pick their meals off their teeth.

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Teresa Milne

Teresa is learning zoology and loves to share her knowledge through her articles. She has some pets that she adores two dogs, two cats, and one hamster. Teresa has also studied canine behaviour and canine nutrition.