When one thinks of an iconic bird of the African bush, there might be a few species that come to mind, yet for me growing up in the southern parts of South Africa (Cape Town) every time I returned to the bush it was the hornbill that reminded me of where I was.

All the hornbill species have a large bill that is like no other. What amazes me is how such a large bill can be used in such a delicate manner, from picking up tiny morsels to selecting fruits off trees. Depending on the area of the bushveld you visit, different species can be in abundance, but the main species that we are familiar with at Londolozi are the southern yellow-billed, southern red-billed, and African grey hornbill, as well as the largest and most endangered of them all, the southern ground hornbill. Trumpeter and crowned hornbills are also occasionally seen here but only rarely (I have yet to see the latter at Londolozi).

A southern ground hornbill takes to the wing. These birds can stand over 1m tall and weigh up to 4kg. They will nest in large tree cavities and will not seal the entrance like other species. Photograph by James Souchon.

A crowned hornbill gathers warming sunlight. A hornbill I am yet to see at Londolozi. Not a common species and a rare find.

An african grey hornbill makes the most of the new emerging winged termite alates that appear in summer after rains.

All species have different foods they favour, from fruit to insects, or even larger reptiles or mammals in the case of the southern ground hornbill. Along with diet comes different behaviour as well as nesting habits.

Red- and yellow-billed hornbills in particular practice amazing nesting habits, which you may well be lucky enough to observe here if you happen to visit during the summer months which is when they are breeding.

A stare down from a southern yellow-billed hornbill. The sheer size of the bill and beautiful yellow eyes are shown.

Both species are monogamous but will usually not have a lasting mating relationship for more than a season.
Males will actively search for females, often displaying in a very visible fashion with wings out, head lowered and calling. This too can be used as a territorial display to other individuals of the same species. Once mating is concluded, a tree cavity to be used as a nest will be searched for.

The next step in their nesting is like no other; the female will enter the hole in the tree and go into a moult, losing all her flight feathers. She incarcerates herself within the cavity of a tree and will seal up the hole to a narrow slit by using mud and plant material brought by the male and will also mix this with faeces.
The act of sealing herself in can be seen as a way of reducing predation as well as well as to disallow other hole nesting birds from taking over the nest. Males will also bring nest lining to the females.
The male will then courtship-feed the female with insects or regurgitated matter. Inside the nest she will lay anywhere between three to five eggs, often spaced up to six days apart from first to last egg. She is the only one to incubate the eggs and will do so from the first egg laid.

Territorial as well as courtship display from two southern yellow-billed hornbills. The wings spread, head bobbing and will be accompanied by a “tok-tok-tok-tok” call that will increase in intensity.

Roughly twenty-five days after the first egg has been laid they will start hatching. Males will continue to feed the females who will present the food to the chicks. At this stage the females flight feathers will have start growing back and around sixteen-days after hatching the female will break out of the hole. The entrance will be resealed by both adults and chicks, while the adults will continue to feed the chicks through the narrow slit.
When flight feathers have grown enough in the young hornbills they will break out in the same fashion as the female. This is roughly three weeks after the female broke out.
Fledglings will remain close to the nest for a few days, before foraging with the adults and then moving off to begin their monogamous solitary lives.

Photo credit Trevor Kleyn

A southern yellow-billed hornbill peers through the the slit that marks the opening of the nest cavity. Notice how the hole has been sealed with mud, faeces and other material. Photograph credit Trevor Kleyn

Red-billed hornbill, bird, PT

The southern red-billed hornbill. Smaller beak than the southern yellow-billed yet equally as delicate when handling foods. Photograph by Peter Thorpe.

Hornbills are fascinating in their nesting habits and one can sit for hours watching the unique breeding behaviour from September to March.
So next time you are out on drive, look into the trees and have a look at any hornbill you may come across. Is there a pair together? Does one have food in its mouth? Is one perched vertically against a tree and regularly visiting the same tree? Have a look, there’s the possibility of witnessing fascinating and unique behaviour like no other.

About the Author

Alex Jordan

Field Guide

Born in Cape Town, Alex grew up on a family wine estate in Stellenbosch. Spending much of his young life outdoors, Alex went on many a holiday into Southern Africa’s national parks and wild areas. After finishing high school, he completed a number ...

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on Hornbills Nesting: Weird and Wonderful

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Marinda Drake

Stunning shot of the southren yellow hornbill staring down Alex. Love watching hornbills. We were fortunate to see a nest with the female inside and the male bringing her food. Always nice to see the ground hornbills.

Alex Jordan

Thank you very much. It took many attempts at getting the “hornbill stare” perfectly symmetrical. Very lucky finding a nest and watching their behaviour.

Denise Vouri

Fascinating-I won’t look at hornbills in the same way again. The photo of the young hornbill peeking through the slit is stunning. Thank you.

Alex Jordan

it truly is fascinating. Thank you

Dina Petridis

great pictures!!

Alex Jordan

Thank you Dina

Darlene Knott

Alex, this is a fascinating article. I love the photos too, especially the one with the eye looking back at you from the slit in the tree and the one of the beautiful flying Southern ground hornbill! Thanks for all the information!

Alex Jordan

I am glad you enjoyed it. Thank you.

Lucie Easley

Thanks, Alex, for these beautiful pictures and nice description of the different hornbills. The ground hornbill is an amazing bird which I’ve seen several times but never in flight. I was fortunate once to have the deck of my tent next to a tree where the female was being fed by the male through the small slit. It was wonderful to watch them as often as I could while in that camp.

Alex Jordan

Southern Ground hornbills look so tranquil in flight and are incredibly beautiful when they take to the wing. What an amazing and lucky viewing with nesting hornbills you could spend hours with.

Kelly Bernard

Very nice article, thanks Alex. I learnt a lot. Awesome picture of the southern ground hornbill in flight, thanks for sharing; and also the nest with the southern yellow billed peering out, very cool!!!

Alex Jordan

Thank you Kelly

Callum Evans

Great post! I actually found red-billed hornbills nesting in the garden we were staying at in Maun on New Years Eve.

Alex Jordan

Incredible. Sit with a nest and watch their unique behaviour. It’s amazing.

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