A Wilder View: Mutualism helps animals and birds alike

Posted at 1:21 PM, Jul 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-21 15:21:50-04

MISSOULA — We take a look at mutualism in this edition of A Wilder View.

Nature documentaries have always highlighted the unique relationship with African oxpeckers -- standing on the backs of cape buffalo, giraffes or zebras picking off protein-rich parasites from their skin or fur creating interesting and extraordinary visuals.

But we can see a similar relationship right from our homes. Magpies have been spotted sitting on the backs of elk and feeding on ticks from their fur.

Interactions like this in nature are described as mutualism because both parties involved are benefiting. In one example, a magpie is getting a meal and the elk is getting freed up from parasites.

This is a relationship you just wouldn't initially expect to see – a large, bodied mammal and tiny in scale bird hanging out in the grass of some meadow.

Now here’s the even crazier part --these interactions don’t just happen with any old elk or magpie. It actually depends on what kind of personality each individual has.

Research has found that for these relationships to form the elk would have to be considered shy and then be paired with a bold magpie.

This means that the “shy” elk has to be tolerant of the magpie; essentially saying it may be too shy to scare the magpie off and not let it land on its back.

While on the other hand a shy magpie probably doesn’t have the courage to land on such a large creature so the more brave or bold ones will be the ones on the backs of elk.

The shy elk and bold magpies may have a good relationship, but for their distant cousins, it is a different story.

Ravens have actually been seen ripping the fur off elk to use as material for their nests something that is not benefiting the elk in any way and probably doesn’t feel that great either.

Elk aren't the only ones that get to soak up the benefits of their flying companions. Magpies have also been seen removing ticks on the backs of moose and wild horses.

Moose most likely benefit more from this relationship than elk. This is because elk are habitual groomers that will usually have fewer ticks on them.

While moose aren’t habitual groomers and will likely have substantially more ticks on their bodies because of this.

Magpies are among the most intelligent birds in the world but aren't the only birds that have been seen doing this in the U.S.

Scrub jays have also been observed removing ticks off deer and both scrub jays and crows have groomed wild boars.

Being a shy elk and lowering tick loads with magpies can help them compensate for being outcompeted for food by the more dominant, bold elk.