The Southern Ground Hornbill

25th June 2010

Physical characteristics: The ground hornbills are the only ground dwellers among hornbills. The large bill characteristic of the Bucerotidae family may be why hornbills are the only birds with the first two neck vertebrae (axis and atlas) fused together.

Hornbills are notable for their long eyelashes and rather stubby legs and toes, with broad soles and the bases of the three front toes partly fused.

The African Ground hornbill's throat skin is inflatable, and sometimes inflates when it makes its guttural call.

Distribution and habitat: The African ground hornbill, Bucorvus leadbeateri, inhabits the African savanna south of the equator. Ground hornbills prefer steppes and savannas with a fairly low grass growth, which makes the search for food easier. They have very large territories of about 100 sq. kilometers.

In South Africa there has been a large decline in their numbers for a number of reasons. They are popular to use as "muti" or tribal medicine among some of the indigenous people of South Africa. The brain of a ground hornbill, if kept in a village, is reputed to bring the village luck. Irate homeowners kill them because they will attack windows, breaking them, if they encounter their reflections. They are also vulnerable to picking up poison baits that are set out for predators.

Diet: The African ground hornbill's food consists largely of small vertebrates and larger insects, although they sometimes use their pick-like bills to subdue prey as large as hares, tortoises, snakes and squirrels.

Reproduction and growth: Ground hornbills are slow breeding and do not reach maturity until they are 4 years old and then only one pair from each group breeds. Ground hornbills need thick trees for their nests. They are the only hornbills which do not wall in their nest holes. The female does not seal the nest although she sits throughout incubation and is fed in the nest by the male. She also does not completely molt as smaller hornbill species do. She molts in steps so that she is still able to fly.

The clutch consist of two eggs and is incubated by the female for about a month. Only one baby from each clutch is raised. The second chick dies within days of hatching because of unsuccessful competition from the first chick that hatches in getting food from the parents. The remaining chick remains in the nest for three months and is fed by the parents for an additional nine months. The chick remains with the family unit until they reach sexual maturity. Most hornbills are monogamous. In species such as the African ground hornbill, cooperative breeding has developed in which some individuals, usually males, although sexually mature, do not breed but help a dominant pair to rear their young.

African folklore: The Masai believe that the African ground hornbill should never be killed because it will bring bad luck. If one lands on the roof of a house, the occupants must move at once or they believe death will ensue.

Aside from many indigenous tribes in South Africa using the ground hornbill for "muti" (tribal medicine), there are others in Africa who believe that the African ground hornbill is a rain prophet.

Status: They are listed as vulnerable in South Africa as they have disappeared from large areas where they have occurred in the past. They now occur only in reserves. There were at last estimate about 720 birds in the Kruger National Park, which is South Africa's largest reserve.

Currently there is a conservation project underway in South Africa, in which the second chick from a nest is taken before it dies and raised and released to help increase their numbers.

Did you know: There are only 4 species of birds with eyelashes like the ostich and hornbill.  The eyelashes are actually just modified feathers.

The Swahili name for the hornbill is filimbi