Posted in Africa, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel


photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill


For most of the morning a group of female giraffes has followed closely behind us. Whenever we stop, they stop, too, and the spotted derricks of their necks swivel in all directions to get a better look at us. At the end of each neck, a head is cocked sideways: the universal body language that says, “Huh?”

As the giraffes become more relaxed in our presence, they feed more closely and don’t look up at us quite as often.

I stop and take a photograph, of a graceful giraffe with an oxpecker on her neck, as she bends down to browse.

Red-billed oxpeckers use their bills to comb through the fur of large mammals both wild and domestic for ticks and bloodsucking flies, clinging to their hosts with sharp claws. They also feed on earwax and dandruff, and have been observed opening small wounds, as well as enhancing existing wounds, in order to feed on blood. Oxpecker courtship and copulation occurs on their hosts while they ride along, and they cushion their nests with hair from their host.

Living together in the animal kingdom.


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

4 thoughts on “Symbiosis

  1. Hi Cheryl Having an afternoon cleaning up my email inbox, and came upon this one from you. I thought you might enjoythis little memory. I was reminded of an incident at Stanley’s Camp, when an evening safari group returned to camp.Guests and guide all had strange looks on their faces, I could tell they were suppressing laughter.I asked how their game drive had gone, and if they had witnessed a kill – you will know that this is always thehighlight of a safari drive, to see the animals doing their natural “thing”. I expected to be told of a lion with an impala, a hyena with a warthog, or some other such combination.But when the guide told me they had witnessed a giraffe killing a bird, the whole group erupted in laughter. It seems the giraffe had an oxpecker on its back, and then lifted its tail to relieve itself.The oxpecker saw an opportunity to feed on some easy pickings of seeds or whatever, soflew down and alighted on the skin underneath the giraffe’s tail. Seeing the dark orifice in front of it, it proceeded to insert its head to make a closer examination. The giraffe must have felt the movement of the bird’s head, sosucked itself in, thus drawing the bird in completely. The bird inside obviously struggled, causing the giraffe to look from one side to the other back to its rear end inpuzzlement. Finally it could stand the discomfort no longer, so it relaxed itself forcibly, ejecting the bird at some speed. The giraffe at that exact moment then swung its tail like a cricket bat, with such force that it swiped the oxpecker for a six, killing the little bird. I do so enjoy your posts and Daily Elephants, thank you for all the time you spend posting them.Best regards,Ellen Date: Sun, 1 Nov 2015 19:25:09 +0000 To:

    1. Oh Ellen, this is too good not to share! May I do a “guest post” using your exact tale? I would post on Sunday as a response to Symbiosis. I’ve got 3000 followers all over the world and I’ll bet your story gets a ton of replies! Thanks for sharing this tale with me – I’ve never heard of such a thing!

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