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Serengeti Birds Roost in Giraffes’ Armpits!

The National Geographic Society has been funding a project called Snapshot Serengeti where night cameras have been used to chart the lives of animals after dark. The resulting images have delivered a few surprises!

Exotic bed and Breakfast

Scientists were already aware that yellow-billed oxpeckers spend time on large African mammals during the day. This is beneficial for both the birds and their hosts as the mammals, including giraffe, water buffalo and eland enjoy cleaner, healthier skin as a result of the avian activity. The birds search the skin for small parasites to eat and their meals remove the irritants from the mammals.

Now, the new night time images have revealed that the birds even find places to sleep on their hosts. It turns out that giraffe armpits are the perfect place to catch forty winks. It’s a safe and comfortable place for the birds to rest. Meredith Palmer, a Ph.D. candidate in behavioural ecology at the University of Minnesota led a new study on these giraffe "bed and breakfasts" in the African Journal of Ecology. She believes that the roosting behaviour may also be a territorial manoeuvre to deter competitors for the food.

Limited Menu for Birds

A close relative of these birds, the red-billed oxpecker, is smaller and boasts a more versatile beak, allowing it to eat the parasites afflicting a larger repertoire of hosts including zebra, impala, and wildebeest. The yellow-billed oxpecker has a more limited menu and so it makes sense that these birds would keep a close eye on the source of their potential meals, even if that means sleeping on them. The birds stay put to ensure that their dinner table doesn’t wander off in the night!

Seven Birds in One Armpit

The from the Snapshot Serengeti project have revealed that up to seven birds can roost in a single giraffe armpit. The images were captured by many cameras located around the national park which were set-up to be tripped by animal movement. It is the first time that scientists have been able to view the birds’ behaviour after dark.

In addition to the yellow-billed oxpeckers hanging from giraffe armpits, the images also showed red-billed oxpeckers roosting on their hosts.

Vampire Behaviour

The birds' diets don't merely include blood-sucking parasites. Oxpeckers also feast on a whole range of their hosts' bodily fluids, including their mucus, blood and snot! Yum!
Sometimes the birds’ behaviour is a little vampire-like as they will dig into their hosts' open wounds to feed on their blood. The hosts often appear OK with this behaviour and just ignore the birds. It is possible that the animals are aware that the birds keep the wounds clean and free of blowflies.

The wonders of nature never cease to amaze!


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