What's in ear?;The Big Picture

11th June 1999 at 01:00
(Photograph) - Ever wonder what happened in the split second after a photograph was taken? In this instance, we might hazard an educated guess.

The creature with the serene expression and laid-back ears is an impala, and the cheeky chappy with the bright red beak is a red-billed oxpecker (yes, yes, impalapecker would be a better name. But these birds also attend to rhinoceroses and suchlike, so in the interests of brevity...).

Now this impala and its resident oxpecker live in South Africa's Kruger National Park, in a state of more-or-less happy symbiosis. The antelope allows its feathered friend to eat the ticks and maggots whose burrowings and bitings would otherwise make standing gracefully beside the watering hole for any length of time impossible. And in return, the oxpecker - really nothing more than a colourful starling - enjoys regular meals.

True, it frequently oversteps the mark by nibbling at its host's sores and partaking of a little blood - a process that can make healing painfully slow. But it brings more to the relationship than pest control.

Like all starlings, it can sing a sweet song. And then there's the intruder-alarm function.

A startled oxpecker hisses loudly, and this warns the host of approaching danger. The trouble is that when impala are alarmed, they tend to take off in the most dramatic fashion. An alarmed impala might leap three metres into the air and cover a distance of nine metres with every bound.

So there we have it. Whirrrr, CLUNK goes the camera shutter. HISSSS goes the oxpecker (right into that big, laid-back ear). VROOOOOM goes the impala. And do you see any seatbelts around that poor little bird?

Never mind. As the late Johnny Morris would doubtless have observed, show me the couple who don't have their ups and downs.

David newnham


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