Southern Ground Hornbill

Safari Spotlight: Southern Ground Hornbill


This edition of the Safari Spotlight focuses with great excitement on the southern ground hornbill, a bird we’ve had on the property for some time and almost exclusively behind the scenes. Very recently, that situation has changed. In the past few weeks, a juvenile hornbill has been taking day trips out to an enclosure directly across the road from Delilah’s Snack Shop. She’s still growing accustomed to her new home and returns behind the scenes at the end of each day, but so far she’s adjusting well and it is our hope that the enclosure will eventually become her full-time home.

The hornbill family is so named because of their very long, downward curving and heavily built bills. The southern ground hornbill is the largest species in the family and one of the few that spends the majority of its time on the ground. These birds are startling for a few key reasons not the least of which is their impressive size. They are roughly equivalent to geese or turkeys but with considerably less bulk. They are almost completely black in color, beginning with their impressive bills and extending all the way down to their stocky legs. There are two exceptions to the glossy onyx of their plumage, one being the bright white primary flight feathers tipping their wings. The other exception is a splash a vibrant red on their faces. If you haven’t seen these birds, it may come as some surprise that the red color doesn’t come from feathers but rather from a leathery inflatable sac of bare skin. It begins around their eyes and continues down onto their throat and can inflate just like a balloon when the birds make their deep and resonant call.

The southern ground hornbill isn’t a particularly vocal bird at most times but they are known to sing duets during the mating season. We have two mated southern ground hornbills on the property and they can often be heard hooting to one another in sequence. The notes are so rhythmic and low in tone that it’s easy to mistake the song for the sound of somebody’s stereo blasting in the parking lot.

The hornbill currently coming out on display is a juvenile and so her color is still coming in and nowhere near as vibrant as it will eventually be. Generally, it takes approximately three years for the full color to come in. If the bird in question is male, the throat sac will be mostly or entirely red, while if the bird is female, the sac will largely turn a deep, lustrous blue below the beak.

The southern ground hornbill was reclassified as “vulnerable” in 2010 as wild populations appear to be in a state of steady decline. This decline is due to several factors, not the least of which is the slow reproductive rate of the species. The birds generally aren’t sexually mature until age three or beyond. Even then, not all birds will reproduce. The hornbills tend to gather in flocks of two to eight birds and only the largest or alpha male and female will breed. The other birds serve as helpers, gathering food for the nesting female and helping to guard the nest. The female may lay as many as three eggs in a season but rarely will more than one make it past the fledgling stage. After leaving the nest, the juvenile bird will still require a great deal of care from its parents for the foreseeable future. In some cases, these juveniles remain dependent on their parents for as long as nine years.

While the birds can occasionally live as long as 70 years, they still rarely produce more than one viable offspring in any three to nine year period, a shockingly low reproductive rate. On top of this extremely slow rate of reproduction, hornbills are also facing a tremendous loss of habitat. They are cavity nesters, raising their young in crevices in trees or cliffs and the clearing of land for agricultural purposes often results in the removal of these cavities.

The birds are omnivorous, favoring insects, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, but they will also eat fruits, seeds, or carrion if the situation becomes necessary. Being more or less generalists in this regard affords them some degree of adaptability in an environment undergoing rapid change.

The southern ground hornbill is a beautiful, captivating, and very charismatic bird. Our youngster is very curious about people and will often hop over to give our guests a looking over before returning to playing with her enrichment items or stalking the bugs in her enclosure. Come to Safari West and meet this enchanting juvenile hornbill, she’ll show you just how variable and fascinating the bird world can be.