The Red-billed Hornbill

25th June 2010

Distribution: The Red-billed Hornbill is sometimes split into five species, but at present most authorities consider them all to be rather subspecies of a single species. Those subspecies are the Northern Red-billed Hornbill (T. e. erythrorhynchus), the Western Red-billed Hornbill (T. e. kempi), the Tanzania Red-billed Hornbill (T. e. ruahae), the Southern Red-billed Hornbill (T. e. rufirostris) and the Damara Red-billed Hornbill (T. e. damarensis).

Altogether, the Red-billed Hornbill occurs in much of sub-saharan Africa except for forested west and central regions. It can be found in western, eastern and southern Africa, with the Southern subspecies occuring from south-eastern Angola east to Zambia, extending south to southern Africa, where it is common in north-eastern Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and north-eastern South Africa.

Status: It is not a threatened species, in fact it is even widespread and common in many areas and in from Kenya to South Africa is one of the characteristic birds of dry thorn-bush. It is about the most commonly seen of the hornbills.

Habitat: The Red-billed Hornbill can be found in open, wooded savanna with sparse ground cover or in mopane woodland. It normally occurs below 1400m though it is sometimes found as high as 2000m. occur up to 2000m. In Kenya, for instance, it is scarce in the highlands and moister western regions and, like the Yellow-billed Hornbill it is absent from the semi-arid coastal strip.

General habits: This bird form flocks outside the breeding season. It can become quite tame around human habitation and frequently invites itself around (or in) lodge restaurants at meal-times.

Feeding habits: This species is omnivorous. It feeds mainly on small insects -such as beetles, ants, termites, flies and grasshoppers- , but it also eats larger arthropods - like centipedes and scorpions-, small vertebrates - reptiles but also birds' eggs and nestlings, notably shrikes, boubous and queleas-, small seeds and fruits. It might even scavenge dead rodents. The Red-billed Hornbill does most of its foraging on the ground, rarely hawking prey aerially.

Breeding habits: Egg-laying season is after the good summer rains, from September to March, peaking in October-December.

Nest: The Red-billed Hornbill nests in natural cavities in trees, anything between 0.3 to 9 m above ground. The female seals herself in her nest with a palster made up of her own faeces, mud, and even fruit pulp, leaving a small entrance hole 3-4 cm wide. This narrow aperture is just big enough for the male to transfer food to the mother and later to the chicks.

Eggs: This species lays 2-7 -usually 3-5 eggs-, depending on rainfall and food availability before laying. Incubation is done solely by the female, since she is trapped in her own nest, starting with the first laid egg. It lasts 23-25 days.

Young: At the beginning, the male is the sole food provider for the female and the chicks, but as the inhabitants of the nest become too big to fit inside, the mother mother breaks out and rebuilds the wall to keep the young ones in and any predators out. Then both parents feed the chicks which will stay in the nest for some 39-50 days altogether. When they are ready to come out themselves, they break the wall another time. They remain near the nest for a few more days before joining their parents in foraging.

Call: This conspicuous bird also advertises its presence with its noisy accelerating "tok-tok-tok-toktoktok" call.

Description: The Red-billed Hornbill is a large bird, at 42cm in length, but is one of the smaller hornbills. This species has mainly whitish underparts and head and grey upperparts with a black stripe on the back of its head. It has a long tail and a long curved red bill which lacks a casque. The nominate subspecies has a reddish ocular skin and dark eyes. Sexes are similar, but the female has a smaller bill.

The Red-billed Hornbill is easily distinguished from the other small hornbills having spotted white wing coverts and a uniformly coloured red-orange beak when both Von Der Decken's and Jackson's Hornbills have clearly bi-coloured bills although Jackson's does share the spotted wing coverts. It is easy to distinguish from the somewhat larger Yellow-billed hornbill, as well, by the colour of its not so thick bill.

Did you know: Hornbills are unique in that their first two neck vertebrae have been fused to support their large bill.

The Red-billed Hornbill is considered a prey by a number of other bird species: the Booted, Tawny and Wahlberg eagles, the Gabar goshawk, the Lanner falcon.

Zazu, a character in the animated film The Lion King, is a Red-billed Hornbill.

The Red-billed Hornbill is also called: African red-billed hornbill, South African Red-beaked Hornbill, South African Red-billed Hornbill, Southern Red-billed Hornbill [English]; Rooibekneushoringvoël [Afrikaans]; umKholwane (also applied to Crowned hornbill) [Zulu]; Rukoko (generic term for hornbills with red or yellow bills) [Kwangali]; Goto, Hoto (generic names for hornbill) [Shona]; Umkhotfo (generic term for hornbill) [Swazi]; Nkorho (generic term for smaller hornbills) [Tsonga]; Kôrwê [Tswana]; Umkhotfo [Siswant]; Roodsnaveltok [Dutch]; Rotschnabeltoko [German]; Rödnäbbad näshornsfågel, Roodsnaveltok [Swedish]; Calao à bec rouge, Petit calao à bec rouge, Calao d'Afrique du Sud [French]; Calau-de-bico-vermelho [Portuguese]; Lofocero dal becco rosso [Italian]; Piquirrojo [Spanish]