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? A Win-Win Situation For Both

Since hippos can’t reach every corner of their massive body, many parasites and ticks cause health problems. The birds sitting on the hippos take advantage of this and 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 parasites, ticks off the hippo’s back, and even sound an alarm if they notice any threat.

Relationship Between Oxpeckers And Hippos

Hippos and 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 offers these birds easy meals.

But the story does not end there. Even though the oxpeckers feast on the bugs and ticks off the hippo’s back, they do so with a healthy helping of their blood. As these birds keep drinking blood from these animals’ sores, 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 clean 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)

The oxpeckers ride on hippos, rhinos, zebras, giraffes, and other larger animals to feed on 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 between oxpeckers and hippos 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, these birds did go extinct because of rinderpest and toxic cattle dips.

Between late 1802 and 1979, you 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 yellow-billed oxpeckers almost everywhere in the sub-Saharan region of Africa. These birds are also easily spotted in Africa’s West and Eastern sections. However, these birds are not found in the region’s desert areas and the rainforest.

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

The Lifespan of The Oxpeckers

The oxpeckers generally live for about 15 years, which is impressive considering their size. 

The exciting fact about 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 raise the young. The female generally lays 2-3 eggs, which they incubate for a couple of weeks. Most of the time, these parasite-eating birds create their nest in tree cavities. Sometimes they choose vacated Woodpecker holes as their nest.

Once the eggs hatch, the helpers and the parents 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 sitting on hippopotamuses or other host animals.

Oxpeckers Facts

  • Because these birds sit on the backs of 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 off 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 robust tails. These physical features give these birds the required stability. That is why these Birds can easily ride on their large host even when moving.
  • These birds eat ticks from the back of the hippos and remove 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 is also a avid binge watcher of wild animal documentary's. Teresa has some pets that she adores two dogs, two cats, and one hamster. She has also studied canine behaviour and canine nutrition.