Red-billed Oxpecker

Tracker Birds

Tracker birds introduces a really exciting new initiative “Tracker Mentoring” which is the brainchild of our good friends Dr. Kersey Lawrence and Lee Gutteridge. This series of on-line tracking courses is aimed at stimulating an interest in tracking among children, young people, adventure students and the general public as well as giving experienced trackers a path for growth. For full details see: Tracker Mentoring

So where do our sound recordings come in. Most obviously, three species of birds, the Red-billed and Yellow-billed oxpeckers, and the considerably larger Grey Go-way-bird, give loud alarm calls that help other animals to avoid predators and people.

Both species of oxpeckers feed on ticks and other parasites on large mammals such as rhinos, buffalo, hippo and various species of antelope. The birds are very wary and often spot danger well in advance of the host animals, sounding loud hissing alarm calls causing the animal to flee or maybe even charge.

In the old days oxpeckers aroused the ire of hunters because they would warn the animal upon which they were perched of danger by their alarm calls if they caught sight of a hunter stalking through the bush. The same applies these days when out tracking. If you see a bunch of oxpeckers fly up suddenly out of the brush, you know there is a chance of something potentially dangerous lying in wait. But, by the same token, it could also be an animal as small as a warthog or an impala…causing a nervous moment for the tracker, with no real danger!

Grey Go-away-bird

The Grey Go-away bird (previously known to southern African birders as the Grey Lourie) is a noisy and conspicuous species that often perches on the tops of trees in the bush and gives a loud distinctive alarm call, “Kuh-wê!” which sounds somewhat like “Go-Away”; the call often alerts other species to the presence of predators or people and the bird becomes highly vocal when disturbed.

When tracking, particularly in thick bush, it is most important to be aware of the calls of these three species as they all have an effect upon the environment in which they live.

Other birds are also important to the tracker. One such creature is the small but noisy Rattling Cisticola. These little birds are quite drab, plainly brown coloured, but have a beautiful and distinctive song.

Rattling Cisticola

The Rattling Cisticola, in spite of its small stature, has a serious dislike of invaders in its territory, and on many occasions, they will find a tracker moving through their territory, and call aggressively from a few metres away, following the tracker’s progress through its demarcated area, until they consider the human intrusion to be over.

This of course, causes an incredible wave of noise ahead of the stalking tracker, and alerts every animal for hundreds of feet ahead of his or her presence – and is an important part of understanding animal communication. Animals in our wild spaces understand one another so, so much better than we could ever imagine. The call of one, at the right intonation and pitch could cause an unbelievable ripple across the landscape ahead of it. Other species, mammalian, or avian, can interpret the tone of their neighbours. So, the sleepy buffalo you think you are tracking could be wide awake and waiting to meet the cause of the disturbance!

Birds like the African Paradise Fly-catcher and the Dark-capped Bulbul are also wonderful at seeking out danger of different kinds. Snakes and other small predators are often observed by these two species, and the distinctive alarms they produce can attract the attention of the trained tracker, who has taken the time to learn to interpret the tone of the calls. 

Pearl-spotted Owlet

Pearl-spotted Owlets are another unpopular customer in this alarm system. These beautiful predatory birds are often mobbed and chased by the smaller songbirds, and much ado in the area of the perching owlet can often be observed.

These are just some of the ways in which bird calls assist the observant tracker to interpret the environment around them, and the countless messages we receive as we meander through the bushveld are often lost on us.

Practicing listening, watching the body-language of the birds carefully and spending time in our own gardens can allow us a little bit of insight into hearing more, and gaining mor insight into the wonderful messages our early forefathers knew as part of their everyday lives.

This type of interpretation is one of the many exercises we will teach you about on the tracker mentoring program, and with sound recordists like Derek Solomon we have access to incredible resources of sound, and their extensive knowledge of the subtle changes in the environment. Sound is a huge part of tracking, and tracking is a way of living and becoming part of the natural landscape, moving through it as if you belong there, not as if it belongs to you…
Text – Lee Gutteridge & Derek Solomon

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