Avian Alliances: Exploring the Fascinating World of Bird Symbiosis

Avian Alliances: Exploring the Fascinating World of Bird Symbiosis

This wonderful world of birds is impressive. There is so much to explore regarding all aspects of their lives. We will explore one of those aspects in this article. It involves some of their unusual dining guests. Let’s have a look at them.

  • Mutualism is where both partners benefit mutually.
  • Commensalism is where only one partner benefits, but the other is unharmed.
  • Parasitism, where only one partner benefits and the other has not been harmed.


Birds and Mammals

The relationship between birds and mammals is a profitable one for both species. There are many different examples of mutualism between Birds and animals, such as:

Cattle Egrets and cattle

Most of the time, you see these together. Cattle Egret follow the cattle because they disturb insects as they walk.

Cattle Egret and cattle

Getting insects this quickly is, of course, very beneficial to the Egrets. How, then, is this mutual? Well, the egrets will also hop onto the backs of the cattle and start removing ticks, much like the oxpeckers.

This is why they are sometimes referred to as Tickbirds.

Oxpeckers and large herbivores

This relationship is a fascinating story. Herbivore mammals, on their journey through the bushes of Africa, attract parasites that dig in under their fur and feed on them.

The Oxpeckers are attracted to these parasites and will vacuum them up. As the animals graze, the Oxpeckers will roam around on the animals, even on the sides of the animals, searching for these parasites.

Oxpeckers and hippo

Now and again, the birds cause a wound to the animal, which allows the birds to get a sip of the blood from these open wounds, which the Oxpeckers enjoy.

The Red-billed Oxpecker and the Yellow-billed Oxpecker. Both birds are similar-looking birds. What noticeable differences are the bright yellow ring around the Red-billed Oxpecker and their bills?

The Red-billed Oxpecker has a slenderer bill, which it uses to “scissor slice” the parasites from the mammals. The Yellow-billed Oxpecker has a more robust bill, which it uses to pluck the parasites from the animal.

red-billed oxpecker

The oxpeckers remove these life-threatening parasites, making them both happy and the oxpecker gaining many benefits.

The oxpecker gets a meal and a great place to perch. Additionally, the oxpecker gathers fur from the animal to line its nest. So, it is a win-win relationship.

Greater Honeyguides and Honey Badgers

The Greater Honeyguides’ food consists primarily of beeswax and, to a lesser extent, the bees’ larvae and bees themselves. These honeyguides have developed a keen sense of smell, especially honey, which they can smell from some distance.

The honeyguides have a reasonably thick skin to help withstand bee stings, but they need help opening beehives to feed.

Greater Honeyguides

As the name indicates, the Honey Badger also loves honey and bee larvae and has thick skin to protect them against bee stings. The honey badgers are prodigious diggers and get most of their meals this way.

They have an appetite for this sweet delicacy and will do anything, including being stung by bees, to get it.

The Greater Honeyguides find beehives and perch nearby, calling and flicking their wings, hoping to attract honey badgers. After hearing the call, the honey badgers adjust their busy schedules to find the honeyguide.

Once they have seen each other, the honeyguides fly in front with an exaggerated undulated flight for short distances to see if they are being followed. If they still need to, they will go back and start again.

If the honey badgers follow, they will fly another short distance and wait. The Greater Honeyguides will repeat this process until they arrive at the hive. They now break up the Beehive, making it mutually beneficial to both.

The one thought about the honeyguides is that they have a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms that digest the wax. Eating of wax by birds in Africa is unique.

Waders and Crocodiles

Some waders benefit from this relationship, such as the Blacksmith Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, and the Water Thick-knee. The one that stands out the most is the Egyptian Plover, the crocodile bird.

When the crocodiles need their mouths cleaned, they lie there and open their mouths.

Egyptian Plover and crocodile

The plovers recognised the signs given and started feeding. They begin to eat all the leftovers between the teeth and even remove leeches stuck inside the crocodile’s mouth by jumping into the mouth!

So, the crocodile and plover benefit. The plus factor for the plovers is that they can now nest near the crocodiles, where they may be safer from predators.

So, the plover becomes the crocodile Dental health plan.

Hornbills and Mongooses

The Red-billed and Yellow-billed Hornbills have a good relationship with mongooses, mostly the Common Dwarf Mongoose. They follow them and snatch prey that the mongooses flush as they forage. The mongooses also benefit from the alarm calls the hornbills give if predators are nearby.

Hornbills and Mongooses

When the mongoose are late foraging, the hornbills are seen outside the mongoose’s burrow, calling loudly to get them to start their daily quest. 

Birds and Plants

Birds and Plants are an excellent example of mutualism, as birds and plants are almost exclusively dependent on each other. Some birds get their daily food from the plants through nectar and fruit.

While the plants get pollinated, birds distribute the fruit seeds after they have been digested.

Nectivorous birds, such as hummingbirds, honeyeaters, bellbirds, and sunbirds, feed from flowers. Flowers produce nectar specifically to attract birds. When the bird arrives and starts feeding, the pollen gets rubbed off onto the bird’s body.


I have seen Olive Sunbirds with rosy cheeks and all from the pollen that has attached to these sunbirds.

When the fruit ripens on fruit trees, the fruit-eating birds (of which there are many) will flock there and start feeding. As they move around, the seeds are digested (quite quickly) and released not too far from the trees so they do not land in hostile environments.

Interestingly, these frugivores have short intestines, so these seeds can pass through very quickly, thus ensuring the tree’s future.


In this case, one of the partner’s benefits, but the other is unhurt. Few birds fall into this category.

Birds and Mammals

Pale Chanting Goshawks and Honey Badgers

There are a few birds that I could have listed that follow the Honeybadger when it hunts, but the Pale Chanting Goshawk is one of the more common. The honey badger is a very busy animal and generally digs around when looking for food.

Pale Chanting Goshawks and Honey Badger

The lazy goshawk follows at a distance and scoops up insects, reptiles, and even small mammals that the Honey Badger flushes out before the Badger can reach them.

Woodpeckers and other birds

Ordinarily, no dining is involved here, but it is an example of commensalism.

The woodpeckers mostly drill holes in trees and make their nests there. Most of the woodpeckers make different nests in consecutive years.


The vacant nests help many birds that use them for themselves, such as owls, starlings, flycatchers, ducks and even bats. I have been watching a family of Violet-backed Starling’s nests made initially by the Golden-tailed Woodpecker.


Parasitism is when one species benefits to the detriment of others. The two forms I would like to deal with are:

Brood Parasitism

A great example of this is the cuckoos. They have specific species of birds that they parasite against. For example, the African Emerald Cuckoo will use camaropteras as hosts. They can generally match the egg colours of the host.


They arrive at the nest, discard the host’s egg, and lay their egg in their place. If there are already chicks there, they will be evicted by the cuckoos. When the host returns, it will recognise this egg as its own and raise the hatchling, feeding it all the while.

This is an excellent example of an unusual dining pair.


A bird steals from its own or other species.

An excellent example is the frigatebird, which relies almost exclusively on other birds to catch its meals. They spend most of their time chasing other birds to steal food from them. ‘Man O War’ birds are their nicknames.


They have become so good at this, maybe because, as young birds, they practised with sticks in their mouths. They would fly with the stick and drop it. Other young frigatebirds would swoop and grab it.

Mutualism, Commensalism and Parasitism

In this case, the three relationships are all combined into one bird. The best example of this must be the Fork-tailed Drongo and the Meerkat.

The Fork-tailed Drongo are about 25 cm long, have red eyes and have long forked tails, which are evident when they are perching.

They have an incredible capacity to mimic other birds, including raptors. The Fork-tailed Drongo can also mimic the Meerkat. They are very confident, aggressive birds. They can also be seen mobbing birds of prey.

When the Meerkats start their foraging, the Fork-tailed Drongo follow closely, snapping up all that they can find. When perching, Fork-tailed Drongo has an upright figure, so they make sure that the Meerkats can see and identify them as a sentry when they feed.

Fork-tailed Drongo

If the Drongo spies a predator in the vicinity, it lets out a warning call that helps the Meerkats scamper to safety. If the Drongo finds that there are not enough spoils coming their way, they mimic the cry of a bird of prey and once again, the Meerkats scamper to safety while the Drongo jumps down from its perch and starts eating the food left behind by the Meerkats.

After this process has happened a few times, the Meerkats get suspicious and start ignoring the false call of the bird of prey.

This now forces the Fork-tailed Drongo to change their tactics. The Drongo will wait until the Meerkats start foraging, and when the going gets good, the Drongo, at the right time, mimics the Meerkat’s warning cry. Once again, the Meerkats hastened away, leaving the spoils to be stolen again by the Fork-tailed Drongo.


Any way you look at it, all species of birds have unique ways of surviving, sharing a meal, or even stealing the livelihood from another species.

These surprising symbiotic relations show the birds’ incredible diversity in helping sustain themselves and showcase their fantastic ingenuity and ability to thrive in separate environments.

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