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The Great Hornbill - Bhutan’s Fig Loving King of the Forest

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

We continue with our ‘Endangered Birds of Bhutan’ series with an introduction to none other than the ‘Great Hornbill’, also known in Bhutan as the ‘King of the Forest’.

They say bigger isn’t always better, but the Great hornbill is surely the exception to that rule. Top of every ‘Twitchers’ tick list, the Great hornbill is a very big birdie indeed, in fact they are the biggest of the Asian Hornbill species. The sweltering tropics of south-central Bhutan, chiefly Tingtibi, a settlement in the Zhemgang District is where you’ll find these feathered giants. Known for their long life spans, strong pair bonds and elaborate courting rituals the sighting of a Great hornbill is every birders dream.

How to Court a Lady

During breeding season (January - April) the male of the species takes to the skies where he performs majestic and balletic displays of aerial acrobatics. He dives weaves and soars in ever increasing circles, all in a bid to attract a mate. The competition is fierce, but the Great hornbill has many weapons in his romantic arsenal. While soaring on high, if a competing male is out pirouetting another, jealous fisticuffs may ensue. This takes the form of mid- air casque-butting, and he who butts hardest wins the lady and the day. If headbutting the competition into submission fails, the hornbill tries a spot of singing. Starting up a raucous tune, if the female is interested she’ll begin to sing along, love blossoming as their calls become one. However, the Hornbills mating call is no dainty chirrup or twitter, it’s guttural, loud, and sounds something like the barking of a vicious dog. Humans take note, a spot of aerial gymnastics, some light headbutting and a little barking and you too could find love.

Do My Feathers Look Big in This?

The Great hornbill, thanks to their huge U-shaped dandelion yellow and jet black casques, are a handsome and stately looking bird. Their heads and faces are black, and their eyes which are surrounded by incredibly long lashes are blood red. Hind crowns and napes are a sunny yellow, their long serrated down-curved bills are an equally vibrant yellow with a red ochre tip. For the most part their plumage is black and white, their lower belly’s, upper and undertail-coverts and tails are also white, the tails featuring a broad black subterminal band.

Under Threat

Aside from habitat loss due to logging and the clearance of land for farming, the greatest threat the hornbill faces comes from the illegal wild life trade. The demand for Great hornbills as exotic pets and the sky-high prices they fetch make them a very attractive option to smugglers. Hornbills are also hunted for their various parts, the beaks and heads are used by tribesmen as lucky charms, particularly their stunning casques. Tribesmen also believe the flesh bones and blood of hornbill chicks to be medicinal. Sadly, they are also frequently shot by poachers who mistake them for the even rarer Helmeted hornbill, all of which has pushed the Great hornbill’s status from near threatened to vulnerable.

Conservation Efforts

Eco-tourists and wildlife lovers are able to adopt a hornbill, the proceeds of which pay the wages of Bhutan’s nest protectors. Monies also go to re-educating tribesman on the importance of the hornbill, and how the bird’s survival directly affects their own. Donations support conservation through education schemes such as the ‘Hornbill Projects Community Schools Program’. The program sees conservationists head into schools to educate children on hornbills and their importance environmentally.

Female Great Hornbill Trouvailles Tours

Did You Know?

The Great hornbill is mostly frugivorous and is more than a little partial to figs. It is not uncommon for a Great hornbill to eat up to 150-200 figs in one sitting.

Great hornbill chicks are not born with the impressive yellow head casque. The casque forms in their second year and takes around five years to fully develop.

The Great hornbill is the state bird of Chin State in Myanmar, as well as Kerala and Arunachal in India.

The Great hornbills call is so loud it can be heard up to 800 metres away.

Although The hornbills bill looks extremely heavy, it is in fact made up of thin keratin walled cells (the same material human hair and nails are made of) making it quite light. Despite this, two of the hornbill’s neck vertebrae are fused to cope with the extra weight.

The female hornbill is so utterly dependant on the male for food and protection during breeding, that shortly after chicks hatch some males die of exhaustion.

Size: 100 to 120 cm (40 to 48 in.); 150 cm (5 ft.) wingspan. Males are Larger than females. Weight: On average 3 g (6.6 lbs.)

Diet: Raw fruit particularly figs, small reptiles and amphibians, insects and other small birds.

Incubation Period: 38 to 40 days. Clutch Size 1 to 2 eggs.

Life Span: Up to 35 years in the wild and a whopping 50 in captivity

Range: China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Habitat: Wet evergreen and mixed deciduous forests, and ascending slopes to at least 1,560 m (5118 ft) in southern India and up to 2,000 m (6562 ft) in Thailand.

Status: Vulnerable

For more information on how you can help or to book one of our birding tours please contact Trouvailles on 020 3877 0670.