During the recent Exclusive Amboseli and Tsavo Photo safari in Kenya our group witnessed some interesting interaction between two of the most unlikely species.
Red-winged Starlings and Klipspringer.
It was early morning in a remote corner of Tsavo West when we stopped to photograph the Klipspringer pair against a cloudy backdrop. At first I took no notice of the Red-winged starling sitting next to the Klipspringer.
Then, the Starling hopped up onto the back and neck region of the Klipsringer and appeared to be grooming around the head region.
A second Klipspringer joined in on the action and attracted even more Starlings.
I was fascinated by this and wondered what the attraction was but, given that we were a fair distance away (these images were shot at 800mm) there was no way of me telling what wa sactually going on.
I got back to the office and googled the interaction between these two species and came across a submission by Dan Streck to African Birdlife Magazine and found some answers there.
Dan happens to be a past guest of mine so i hit him up and asked if he would be happy to share his story and images from a similar experience he had with this unlikely pair in Kruger National Park.
It was early November, 2010. I was in Kruger/Mashatu for 5 weeks (and I wish I could do that again). I’d gone to the Matembeni Hide (I’m pretty sure) north of Letaba. I think it was late afternoon when this group of klipspringers approached (I’m embarrassed to say that I originally identified them as grey duikers…). I don’t know a lot about klipspringers but it appeared to be an intact family unit – male, female and juvenile. They feed around and didn’t seem at all nervous about my presence in the hide. At some point the male was right in front of the hide, standing very still when a male red wing starling landed on him. I was really surprised to see the starling then work his way up to the klipspringer’s head and then seemed to anchor himself and probe deep into the pre-orbital gland of the klipspringer.
The klipspringer stood very still while the starling probed the pre-orbital glands on both sides, very thoroughly. I couldn’t actually see what the bird was pulling out and it’s not entirely clear from looking at the photos later though one of the images seems (to my eye) to show some sort of larvae? I’ve read Dr. Craig’s paper from ’95 and he speculated that it was either that they were pulling ectoparasites out of the gland or that they were pulling some sort of secretion out, and those were exactly my guesses observing the behavior in the moment.
The klipspringer demonstrated a high level of tolerance for the male red wing. Interestingly, the male was later joined by a female red wing who also attempted to peck around the head and to probe pre-orbital glands. The klipspringer seemed much less tolerant of the female, shaking his head but not actually attempting to move away. I don’t have any explanation for that. The female red wing also pulled hair out of the klipspringer’s ear, I assume as nesting material. After she left, the male red wing came back and continued to peck and probe. I didn’t notice either bird attempting to exhibit this behavior with the female or juvenile klipspringers.
In a response to Dan’s submission of the images to African Birdlife, Professor Adrian Craig had the following comments:
Observations of Red-winged Starlings feeding on pre-orbital gland secretions of klipspringers in Zimbabwe were published in Ostrich in 1995; the observer, S.C. Roberts, was studying klipspringers and was quite sure that the birds were not feeding on ticks. This information is included under diet of Red-winged Starlings in Roberts VII. Grooming of klipspringers for ticks has been reported for Red-winged Starlings from southern and East Africa; in the arid western areas of South Africa and in Namibia, Pale-winged Starlings have a similar relationship with these antelope.
However, feeding on the gland secretions does seem to be less common and may be restricted to certain times of year. One species of tick is attracted to twigs which have been marked by klipspringers as this clearly offers a good chance of encountering a new host, but there is no evidence that the ticks settle around the pre-orbital glands of the mammal; they are found on the underside and less accessible sites.
For me this was a great reminder that whilst photography may be at the centre of every safari we run, we are incredibly privileged to be out in nature and should always be on the lookout for the more subtle and interesting interactions that we maybe all too often dismiss based on the potential photographic merit or wow-factor.
Photographically our sighting in Tsavo was pretty challenging given the distance but our group managed to get some decent images. The most rewarding aspect, and all the guests agree on this, was that we witnessed a fairly rare behavioral interaction between the these two species.
For me, that was better and more rewarding than the images themselves!
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