Encounter: Malabar Grey Hornbill

The next time you hear a chuckle from the treetops or endearing squeaks and musical caws, look out for the Malabar Grey Hornbill. Or maybe a whole flock!

What’s so different about the Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus) compared with the other three hornbills found in the Western Ghats? The casque, of course. Rather, the absence of it. Although the attention-grabbing casque — the horn in hornbill — is not present in this southern species, the bright orange bill (in males) makes up for it and you realise the true meaning of the word “Hornbill”. The bill is shaped exactly like a cow’s horn, which is the literal meaning of its family name, Bucerotidae. This it uses mainly to feed on fruits and berries although they also catch small vertebrates. All hornbills are grouped under the order Coraciiformes, which includes rollers, bee-eaters and kingfishers.

Malabar Grey Hornbills, like most other hornbills, are sexually dimorphic — males have a bright orange bill with a yellow tip, while females have a yellow bill with a black base. The plumage of both sexes are mainly greyish with a broad white supercilium running down to  the neck.

While the Indian Grey Hornbill occurs in the plains, Malabar Grey Hornbills birds are endemic to the Western Ghats. They are believed to mate for life and are secondary cavity nesters, which means they use existing tree cavities and do not excavate their own for nesting. These nesting sites are used year after year. As with many other hornbills, females imprison themselves in the cavity while nesting and undergo a complete moult, losing all their body feathers. They emerge after the eggs hatch. During this time it is up to the male to feed her through a narrow slit in the cavity. Perhaps one of the reasons for the hornbills’ long bills may be to pass food through this slit. Of course, this is my surmise and I am open to correction.

After a fleeting glimpse of this bird at Agumbe three years ago I observed them to my heart’s content at Dandeli earlier this year. As we (the Ogres) were busy observing the larger Malabar Pied Hornbills at the timber depot in the heart of Dandeli town, a few of these birds landed on fruiting trees nearby and posed for us. It was interesting to observe them feeding on berries.

Although these birds are relatively common in the Western Ghats and are listed by the IUCN as LC (Least Concern), their rapidly shrinking habitat is a cause for worry.

Text and photographs: Arun
Additional photograph: Sandeep Somasekharan

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