These showy birds in the Bucerotidae family can be found in Africa and Asia. Characterized and named for their large bills, it is this feature that makes them entertaining to observe.
Hornbills are the only bird with the first and second vertebrae fused together, a feature that helps support the large bill. Powerful neck muscles also offer support.
There are approximately 55 species of hornbills in the world, pictured here are four species we observed in sub-Saharan Africa. Except for the southern ground hornbill, most hornbills are arboreal.
Species vary in size. All the birds here range around 20 inches (50 cm) long, except the ground hornbill at about a meter tall. More hornbill info here.
Their diet is omnivorous, and includes fruit, insects, and small animals. While the large bill is used for catching prey, the bill is so long that the tongue cannot reach the food. You will often find one vigorously shaking the head, to aid in swallowing.
In addition to preening and fighting with the bill, another important use is for nest building. Most hornbill species are monogamous. They construct the nest in a cavity, and when the female is ready to lay her eggs, they do a peculiar thing to prepare a safe environment.
They build the entrance just large enough for the female to enter. Then she enters and the male seals it shut, almost entirely.
Using mud, fruit pulp, and droppings to seal it, he leaves enough room to pass food through. When the chicks are ready, she breaks the seal open.
Not only is it a fascinating bird to watch, but the sounds are great too. Click here for my favorite hornbill sound: the southern ground hornbill.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander