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Episode 218: Asia’s Great Hornbill

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This week’s podcast introduces an amazing bird from Asia, the Great Hornbill. These creatures are members of a large family of unique looking birds due to the large casques atop their heads. The Great Hornbill ranges from India to the Philippines and is on a trajectory towards extinction. What makes hornbills especially unique are their nesting behaviors, which are almost too radical to be believed. This week we also welcome a special guest who had the pleasure of working with hornbills and he gives us some insight into their behaviors. Due to the destruction of their habitat and for the fact they are often hunted for their casques and feathers, the Great Hornbill is in trouble. These are big and beautiful birds that need our help, and are well worth learning about.

Great Hornbill History

The Great Hornbill belongs to the Order of birds called Bucerotiformes. This includes all hornbills, ground hornbills, hoopoes and wood hoopoes. The Family of the Great Hornbill is Bucerotidae, which includes all hornbills, which include around 62 species. These birds range from all throughout Africa to the southern parts of Asia, all the way to the Philippines. The Great Hornbill belongs to the genus Buceros and has the scientific name Buceros bicornis. Their closest relatives are the Rhinoceros Hornbill and the Rufous Hornbill.

Birds began to emerge during the Jurassic Period, roughly 160 million years ago. Modern birds began to emerge after the 5th Mass Extinction, about 65 million years ago. Not much is known about the emergence of hornbills due to a lack of fossils. Yet, they are believed to have first evolved in Africa about 35 million years ago. Proto-Buceros is an ancient ancestor that lived around this time and is thought to be the first hornbill. Since, many species branched out throughout Africa and Asia.

It is interesting that the Toucan from Central and South America is quite similar to hornbills. However, they are not closely related. The long bills that Toucans developed similar to hornbills are thought to be a great example of convergent evolution.

Great Hornbill Facts

These are large birds with body lengths of up to 50 inches (130 cm) long and with 60 inch (5 feet, 150 cm) wingspans. What is the most unique aspect of hornbills are the large casque that sits atop their heads. While the exact function of the casque is not precisely known, it is believed to be important for vocalizations and also helps add weight to their bills to hammer when chiseling bark and soil.  Their long bills are thought to be important in helping them pick fruit, which is a main staple in their diet. As an omnivore, the Great Hornbill will eat small mammals, reptiles, insects and other food items. They can consume up to 33% of their body weight per day.

The Great Hornbill can live up to 40 years in the wild. They are a long living bird. What is the mist fascinating aspect of the hornbills is their nesting behaviors. Using old growth trees, the Great Hornbills will either reuse or chisel out a nesting site within the trunk of a tree. The female will go inside the tree and she will be sealed inside, leaving only a small slit available for the male to pass her food, or she will use it to eliminate waste. While inside, the female will go through a complete molt and lose her feathers. She is 100% dependent on the male for her survival. Here she will remain with 1-2 eggs for about 40 days until they hatch. Later she will leave and the chicks will reseal the nest until they are mature enough to emerge.

Great Hornbill Conservation

The Great Hornbill is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN with an estimated population of 13,000 to 27,000 birds. They are often hunted by humans for their feathers, for meat and the casques on their heads. Habitat loss is also a major driver of these fascinating birds to extinction.


May 12, 2021
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