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).
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.
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.
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.
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.