If you visit Botswana, you will undoubtedly encounter the red-billed hornbill seen above. Unlike most of the other birds, this one seems curious about humans and poses for pictures endlessly. The Hornsbill (Bucerotidae) include about 55 living species, though a number of cryptic species may yet be split, as has been suggested for the red-billed hornbill (seen above). Their distribution includes Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Subcontinent to the Philippines and the Solomon Islands, but no genus is found in both Africa and Asia. The most distinctive feature of the hornbills is the heavy bill, supported by powerful neck muscles as well as by the fused vertebrae. The large bill assists in fighting, preening, constructing the nest, and catching prey. There are two subfamilies: the Bucorvinae contain the two ground hornbills in a single genus, and the Bucerotinae contain all other taxa. Traditionally they are included in the order Coraciiformes (which includes also kingfishers, rollers, hoopoes and bee-eaters). In the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy, however, hornbills are separated from the Coraciiformes into an order of their own, Bucerotiformes, with the subfamilies elevated to family level.
Southern Ground Hornsbill
In Africa, southern ground-hornsbill are classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN, however, those in South Africa are classified as ‘endangered’ on the Red List of Threatened Species as only about 1500 individuals live within the country. Loss of habitat, loss of nesting trees, electrocution from transformer boxers and even, in some cases, killed for use in traditional medicine, have all contributed to the rapid decline of these odd but majestic birds. The southern ground hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri; formerly known as Bucorvus cafer), is one of two species of ground hornbill and is the largest species of hornbill. The other species of the genus Bucorvus is the Abyssinian ground hornbill, B. abyssinicus. Southern ground hornbills can be found from northern Namibia, Angola and Botswana to northern South Africa and southern Zimbabwe to Burundi and Kenya.
Coloration of Ground Hornsbill
The southern ground hornbill is characterized by black coloration and vivid red patches of bare skin on the face and throat (yellow in juvenile birds), which are generally believed to keep dust out of the birds eyes while they forage during the dry season. The beak is black and straight and presents a casque, more developed in males. Female southern ground hornbills are smaller and have violet-blue skin on their throats. Juveniles to six years old lack the prominent red pouch, but have a duller patch of grey in its place.
Other than the wattle (the red areas), the bird appears black in color, but in fact it has white primary feathers which are only visible in flight. The white tips of the wings (primary feathers) seen in flight are thus a good way to identify the birds. Another good identifier are the raucous bird calls. Southern ground hornbill groups are very vocal: contact is made by calls in chorus which can be heard at distances of up to 3 kilometres (about 2 miles). The calls allow each group to maintain its territories.
Characteristics of the Southern Ground Hornsbill
The Southern Ground Hornbill is a gigantic bird (sometimes referred to as a Turkey Buzzard – although it is neither a turkey nor a buzzard), and is the largest of the hornbill species. It can grow to a height of 4.5 feet (130 cm), with the males attaining a weight of up to 14 lbs (6 kgs) and the females being around 4 lbs (2 kgs) lighter. The birds are very territorial, with the entire family group of up to 10 individuals protecting a territory which can be many square miles. They are monogamous, pairing for the 30 – 40 years of their lives unless their mate dies. The southern ground hornbill’s loud voice and large size have made it a focal point in many traditional African cultures. Historically, there were strong taboos against killing of ground hornbills; however these have been weakened with the modernisation of Africa. For southern African cultures, the ground hornbill was a symbol of the arrival of the rainy season and this may have been a factor in above-mentioned hunting taboos.
Southern Ground Hornsbill Diet
The Southern ground hornbill forage on the ground, where they feed on reptiles, frogs, snails, insects and mammals up to the size of hares. Surprisingly, despite the fact that they often feed near water, Southern ground hornbills very rarely drink water. Their range is limited at its western end by the lack of trees in which to build nests. The individuals that we saw were particularly interested in snails.
Southern Red-Billed Hornsbill of Botswana
The southern red-billed hornbill (Tockus rufirostris) is a species of hornbill in the family Bucerotidae, which is native to the savannas and dryer bushlands of southern Africa. It is found from Malawi and Zambia to southern Angola, northeastern Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, eastern Swaziland and northern South Africa (Transvaal and northern KZN province). It occurs in the upper Zambezi valley of Mozambique, but is mostly absent from the eastern lowlands.