On the Wing – The Great Hornbill


Nothing can prepare you for the awe-inspiring spectacle of a Great Hornbill, flying wild and free in its ancient forests

The swooshing sound of the Great Hornbills’ wingsweeps resonates in the silence of the forest

The Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis) is found in the Western Ghats and the Himalayan foothills in India as well as in the thick rainforests of Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula and Thailand extending north all the way up to Nagaland in India, as well as Nepal.

These large omnivorous birds do not have many natural predators. However, they are near threatened due to habitat loss from excessive deforestation as well as from poaching (their meat is considered unsuitable for consumption) as their large bills are coveted as trophies. Apart from its huge bill and colorful plumage, the bird is recognizable for its loud and sonorous call, which has earned it the Malayalam name “Malamuzhakki” — one who makes the hills reverberate. 


 Great Hornbills are known to be monogamous and have a peculiar breeding habit that restricts their ability to proliferate in large numbers. Hornbill pairs partner for life and the death of either partner results in the surviving partner going mate-less for the rest of its life.

Exhibiting great dexterity, a Great Hornbill tosses a berry in the air before swallowing it
While hornbills have a lifespan of around 35 years or more, due to their selective breeding and nesting habits this longevity does not offer a significant advantage for their survival. Females nest in tree hollows while the male helps seal the cavity from outside. The male takes the responsibility of providing food to the incarcerated female. The male makes several daily trips to gather fruits, berries, reptiles and insects for the female. The male stores the fruits in the crop (a sac in its throat) and regurgitates them at the nest, following this regimen until the chick has grown significantly and it is time for the female to emerge from the nest cavity. Since the female has to rely on the male during this time, his death due to hunting or poaching would result in the death of the female and the offspring as well. Great Hornbills are known to return to the same tree cavities year after year and the loss of the tree means the pair would have difficulty in breeding again. There are few trees that satisfy the nesting requirement of hornbills and deforestation has become a major reason for the bird’s dwindling numbers. 

Seeing the decline in numbers of the Great Hornbill, several conservation programs have been commenced to protect and revive this intriguing species.

Text: Anand Yegnaswami
(See Sandy’s blog post on his meeting with the Great Hornbill)


These lovely images are best printed with HP Laserjet

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