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  • Maxine Smith


The Southern Yellow-billed and the Southern Red-billed Hornbills are bird commonly seen in the Lowveld and often overlooked on a Safari. However, if you take the time to watch them, you’ll be pleasantly surprised! These two hornbills are omnivorous, feeding mainly on insects, small reptiles, fruits and seeds. You will often find them on the roads flicking over elephant and rhino dung, searching for seeds or even dung beetles!

The breeding behaviour of these hornbills is the most fascinating of all. They nest in holes and cavities in a tree but as they are unable to make the holes themselves, they will make use of already made holes. After mating, when she is ready for nesting, the female will source out one of these holes and go inside. She will then pluck out her tail and flight feathers to line the nest to keep the eggs and chicks warm. The male will assist by closing the entrance hole with mud, leaving a small gap to pass food through. This will keep the female and chicks safe. During their time in the nest, the male will supply the female and chicks with food. The female’s feathers grow back in time for the chicks to leave the nest. They then break down the mud and fly away.

There is another species of Hornbill that is found here, however, this one is endangered, and you should count yourself extremely lucky to see one! The Southern-ground Hornbill.

This species is much larger, standing over 1m tall, weighing close to 4kgs and with a lifespan of 40-50 years! They are predominantly ground birds, but they will roost and nest in trees. They are more carnivorous and will use their large beaks to kill and eat small, mammals, tortoises, snakes and insects. Their endangered status is due to a few factors. Loss of habitat is a big cause will natural habitats declining, as well as nesting trees being broken down by elephants or humans. Another big factor is their slow breeding cycles. Normally only two eggs are laid every three years! Due to them being such a large bird, the second egg is only laid days later. This means that when the second chick hatches, the first chick is already much larger and stronger. This normally results in siblicide where the first chick either kills the second one out of competition or steals all his food, causing it to starve to death. Hornbills get their name from their large bills. Their bills are very large in comparison to their body and are very heavy. So heavy in fact that their first and second neck vertebrae are actually fused together to help support this weight. They are truly quite spectacular birds that come in a variety of colours and sizes and definitely worth looking out for.

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