Hornbills

Red-billed hornbillA group of potentially large and noisy birds represented in both Africa and Asia, characterised by relatively dull plumage and a prominent bill, often topped, especially in males, with an enlarged area known as a casque. Only the smaller African species belonging to the genus Tockus are likely to be be seen in typical softbill enthusiast’s set-up, being easy to maintain, although others, including the African ground hornbills (Buceros species), are often represented in zoos and bird gardens.    

Housing

A relatively long flight, with perches at either end, to allow these birds to fly and glide, will be needed, as well as heated winter-time accommodation.  Although hardy once acclimatised, these birds are very vulnerable to frostbite, and must not be allowed to perch in the open when the temperature is likely to dip to zero or below.

Feeding preferences

These birds have just a very small V-shaped tongue, and so need food items which they are to pick up easily in their bill. They may be reluctant to sample inanimate foods, but can be persuaded to take softbill pellets. Small hornbills will also eat chopped fruit and livefoods of suitable size, including crickets, locusts and mealworms.

Breeding

As hole-nesters, these hornbills have a fascinating breeding cycle, with the hen being walled-in behind a mud casing over the entrance. There is just a small gap left open, through which the cock bird can feed his mate. Towards the end of the nesting period, the female will break out, and then repair the hole, joining her mate in seeking food for their rapidly-growing brood. Damp clay must therefore be available through the breeding period,  which the hornbills are likely to mix with their droppings, to plaster over the nest entrance.

Sociability

Can be housed with other softbills of similar size, but pairs are best-kept on their own for breeding purposes. May choose to sunbathe on the floor of the aviary. 

Health watch

Deworm newly-acquired birds for tapeworm. Confine the hornbills in the aviary shelter to protect them from frostbite when the weather is cold, or overwinter them in an indoor flight.

  • Good to start with: The red-billed hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus), as shown above. Males in this case generally have larger, more brightly-coloured bills than hens. 
  • Clutch size: 4-5 eggs.
  • Incubation and fledging periods: About 30 and 60 days respectively.

Enthusiast’s guide

The Hornbills by Alan Kemp. Published by Oxford University Press.