Vanishing Species – Great Pied Hornbill

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Great Pied Hornbill

(Buceros bicornis)

Another of our big bird on its way to extinction

Hornbills attract naturalists the world over on account of their large size, bizarre bill, projecting casque, colourful beaks, feathers, and peculiar breeding habits. Most of the hornbill species nest in cavities of old trees. The breeding pairs usually exhibit high nest site fidelity as they tend to use the same nest site every year. After selecting a suitable nest hole, the female goes in and incarcerates herself by sealing the entrance leaving a narrow slit, through which she, and later her chicks, receive food from the male.

The Great Hornbill, Buceros bicornis also known asThe Great Pied Hornbill, is the largest member of the hornbill family. Great Hornbill is distributed in the forests of India, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, Indonesia. Their impressive size and colour have helped make them a part of local tribal cultures and rituals. The Great Hornbill is long-lived with a life-span approaching 50 years in captivity.The Great Hornbill is a large bird, nearly four feet tall with a 60-inch wingspan, tail feathers reaching 36 inches and a weight of approximately six pounds. The most prominent feature of the hornbill is the bright yellow and black casque on top of its massive bill. The casque is hollow and serves no known purpose (“tame” hornbills are known to enjoy having them scratched) although they are believed to be the result of sexual selection. Male hornbills have been known to indulge in aerial casque butting flights. Females are smaller than males and have blue instead of red eyes. The male spreads the preen gland secretion which is yellow onto the primaries to give them the bright yellow colour.


The largest of the nine hornbill species found on the Indian subcontinent, the Great Pied hornbill also has one of the widest ranges, living everywhere from sea level to heights of nearly 5,000 feet.The Great Pied hornbill can have wingspans of nearly five feet, with tails that can measure three feet. It is an incredibly beautiful bird as well, covered in black plumage, with a yellow bill that curves downward. Most distinctively, the hornbill’s head is topped with an ivory formation, also known as a casque. The Great Pied hornbill’s diet consists mostly of fruit, which it collects inside its beak during feedings. A male hornbill will collect as much food as it can, swallow it, and then return to its mate, and regurgitate the meal into her mouth. The wing beat of a Great Pied hornbill can be heard more than a half mile away.

The Malabar Pied Hornbill occurs more frequently and abundantly in the northern part of the Western Ghats, with a key conservation area being the Amboli-Madei-Mollem-Dandeli region spanning three states. The strongholds of Great Pied Hornbill populations appear to be localised at a few sites in the southern half of the Western Ghats (e.g., Anamalai hills).

In India, nine species of hornbills occur, of which four species have been recorded in the Western Ghats. They are the Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros bicornius), Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus), Malabar Grey Hornbill and Common Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris). The Malabar Grey Hornbill is endemic to the southern portion of the Western Ghats. In Nilgiris and the adjoining hill areas, the hornbills are known by various names by the different groups of indigenous people. The Great Pied Hornbill is known as Ongil by Kurumbas, Haradaya by Kattunayakkas, Peraanthi by Irulas. In the adjoining state of Kerala, where Great Pied Hornbill is the state bird, it is known as Malamuzhakki and Pondan Vezhambal . All the hornbill species are known by a common name aanthi by Irulas. Intensive bird surveys in Nilgiris and the adjoining Coimbatore district covering seven localities indicate the presence of all four hornbill species here. While Malabar Pied Hornbill and Common Grey Hornbill were sighted in only one locality, the Great Pied Hornbill was sighted in three localities and Malabar Grey Hornbill in two localities. Studies conducted by other ornithologists in the southern part of Western Ghats indicate that these birds are also sighted frequently in Anamalai hills, Mundanthurai-Kalakad hills, Silent Valley, Parambikulam, Periyar Tiger Reserve and in the forests of North Kanara districts.Trends indicate that the pied hornbills are threatened with local extirpation.

The largest among these four species is the Great Pied Hornbill which is most vulnerable to local extinction in the Western Ghats. This species requires large stretches of evergreen forests. Being large birds, they have to find a sufficiently large sized nest hole in order to house the female and chicks during the long breeding cycle that extends to more than 100 days. Also the slightest disturbance at the nest site can result in the male refusing to feed the nest inmates, thus threatening the survival of the female and chicks. The levels of disturbance are on the increase due to increasing deforestation activities. According to Raghupathy Kannan, who conducted a study on the Great Pied Hornbill in Anamalai hills, poaching of the female and chicks during the breeding season is an immediate threat to these birds

In human culturesLocal tribes further threaten the Great Indian Hornbills with their desire for its various parts. The blood of chicks is said to have a soothing effect on departed souls and before marriage, tribesmen use their feathers for head-dresses, and their skulls are often worn as decorations. Conservation programmes have attempted to provide tribes with feathers from captive hornbills and ceramic casques to substitute natural ones.

A Great Hornbill by the name of William is the symbol of the Bombay Natural History Society. Sir Norman Kinnear described William as follows: “Every visitor to the Society’s room in Appollo Street will remember the great Indian Hornbill, better known as the “office canary” which lived in a cage behind Millard’s chair in Phipson & Co.’s office for 26 years and died in 1920. It is said its death was caused by swallowing a piece of wire, but in the past “William” had swallowed a lighted cigar without ill effects and I for my part think that the loss of his old friend was the principal cause.”

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