Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

Red-billed Hornbill pair, Zambia

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.


Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia

Southern Ground Hornbill, Zambia

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.


Crowned Hornbill, Zambia

Crowned Hornbill, Zambia

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.


Yellow-billed Hornbill, Botswana

Yellow-billed Hornbill, Botswana

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

55 thoughts on “Hornbills

  1. Jet I will confess as these orange hook like beaks rolled across my touch pad screen I honestly yanked my hand away. Kudos to Athena for her vivid images. apparently for this reader so vivid I thought harm was about to come to my digits! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the great photos and interesting introduction Jet! Their nest building technique is quite neat and I like imagining them shaking their heads to eat their food 🙂 . And thanks for the sound link – very funky, like some kind of wooden wind instrument.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this introduction to the hornbills, Myriam, including their sound. Their sound is reminiscent of a wooden instrument — and much like blowing into a Coke bottle.

  3. Fascinating post, Jet!!! These birds are awesome! My chances of ending up in Asia or Africa are pretty slim so I really appreciate seeing a post like this! Thank you! ❤

    • I’m really glad you enjoyed the hornbills today, Amy. A blogger told me today he saw hornbills at the zoo, so maybe you will see hornbills there. Many thanks for your kind comment.

  4. What a lively post, Jet. So educational, yet fun with all the photos of those magnificent red-billed birds. I enjoyed listening to the bird call — another fun touch. It didn’t sound at all like I imagined. I’d almost think the first two glided down and asked Athena, “Hey can you take a couples shot for us?” Mega hugs!

  5. Years ago my daughter took a picture of a ground hornbill in the zoo – it is when I learned about the birds. He had a saddest face ever, and the most beautiful eyelashes. Now I know that he has a sweet voice 🙂 Thank you for this post, and for the special memories it brought!

  6. I always listen to the calls when you post a link. This one made me think…who- who(ish) … like an Owl.
    This is a beautiful bird that makes me think of a skinny Puffin. The Puffin is my fave bird of all time. Although I have never seen one in real life, the Puffin remains etched in my mind & heart… yes, I feel an emotional attachment to the Puffin.

    • I think it’s great that you listen to the calls, Resa. They’re all so different. And yes, I love puffins too. They are tricky to see, as they almost always have to be seen from a boat, and are usually so far away. Always fun to think about birds~~

  7. i learned some interesting facts about hornbills. did you know that horn bills have beaks so long , that their tongues cannot reach the food when grabbing it. they must vigorously shake their necks when swallowing.

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