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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 23

From Issue No 23

A big bill and a boom

 

Ground Hornbill – Bucorvus leadbeateri (Afrikaans: Bromvoël)

 

The Ground Hornbill, biggest of all the African hornbills, is mainly black with deep red bare skin on the face and neck. It could be said to resemble a large turkey. Its huge bill is a deadly tool, capable of slicing a monkey in half with a single strike.

The inflatable throat sac produces a booming call that can be heard up to three kilometres away. The adult birds call in duet, mostly in the early morning and sometimes at dusk, to indicate their territory. It hardly sounds like birds calling, and some people have at first thought they were hearing lions lurking in the bushes!

Distribution in South Africa is in the far northern and eastern parts (especially the protected areas such as Kruger National Park), KwaZulu-Natal, and the eastern part of the Eastern Cape. It is fairly common in Zimbabwe and northern and north-eastern Botswana, with occasional sightings in northern Namibia. In 2006 a single bird was seen at Faure in the Western Cape, where members of the Somerset West Bird Club were able to get a good view of the bird for about a week.

Ground Hornbills are usually in family parties of three to nine, seen walking in the veld hunting for prey which consists of insects, frogs, reptiles, rats, mice, tortoises, birds and small mammals such as hares. The parties are made up of a male and a female, and the rest are growing birds from one to four years old who stay with the parents until they become fully adult and ready to breed at age four.

The nest is usually in a big hole in a tree or a rock cliff. They lay two to three eggs about a week apart, so the first chick is a week older than the second chick. The first chick grabs most of the prey brought to the nest, so the younger one usually starves to death. There would hardly be room for two growing chicks in the nest hole. The whole group of birds help with the feeding of the growing chick.

Ground Hornbills spend most of the day walking on the ground, but at night they roost in trees. They are really quite competent fliers once they take to the air, and can land on branches with ease.

The beak of the hornbill is a very formidable weapon. On retirement we went to live on a farm in Eshowe in Natal. The day we arrived the farmer, John Fisher, told us they had just completed replacing fourteen window panes. The hornbills were often seen strolling around the house, which had lawns and trees all around. The morning before we arrived, the gardener came running to the main house and told Mr Fisher the hornbills had smashed all the windows with their bills; all the windows lower than a metre above ground were broken. The birds probably saw their own reflection in the glass and attacked them, as they don’t tolerate other hornbills in their territory.

About two months later the farmer let us know the hornbills were busy cleaning out the nest hole where they had nested five times before. The nest hole was four metres above ground in what we thought was the biggest syringa tree in South Africa. A week later we looked again: one egg; two weeks later: two eggs. Then 44 days later there were two chicks; another two weeks later, only one chick.

Four weeks after that tragedy struck. There was a vicious thunderstorm with strong winds and the tree was smashed at the nest hole; branches were lying around for 30 metres. The main trunk was still standing with only about half a metre of the nest hole left. Unbelievably, the chick had survived, sopping wet with no roof over its head. We got the call for help over the radio. Gavin Lawrie, my other neighbour, and I rushed over. The farm owner donated an old dog kennel and planks and with that we fashioned a roof and sides over the nest.

During all this the farmer's son, about seven years old, was in a terrible state. He was very proud of these huge birds, which were as tall as himself. We told him the most important thing now was to get some fresh food inside the chick. Then very generously he offered his three pet frogs, which he was training for the long-jump competition at his school. He said he could quite easily catch some more in the marsh, and please would we take them. We accepted. I held up the first one to the bird and nearly lost a finger! The other two followed soon after. We knew the chick could now survive the rest of the day and a night. It was still raining, but the nest was now waterproof.

We arranged to be kept informed and left. Two hours later, in the late afternoon, a radio message came. The birds had come back carrying prey and after walking around the jumble of broken branches four or five times, the male walked up one of the fallen branches and jumped onto the nest and fed the chick another frog. It was a happy day for us.

The farmer promised he would not clear the mess until the chick had fledged, even though his front door was blocked – these were his son’s orders.

We put up a hide and photographed the hornbills. Two weeks later it was my wife Ella’s turn in the hide with her video camera. It was her lucky day! At about 14h00 the parent birds and two young ones of the previous three years were walking around and around with prey but did not come on the nest to feed. They knew the time had come. Then first one wing, then a head and then another wing, and out came the bird and flew 25 metres and joined the family, now a total of five. They walked away through the sugar cane, with the chick leading the way!

 

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The Ground Hornbill. The large bill is a lethal weapon, and the throat sac produces the distinctive boom

The Ground Hornbill. The large bill is a lethal weapon, and the throat sac produces the distinctive boom

Ground Hornbill with clump of straw for the nest

The adults in the group all continuously bring clumps of plant matter to the baby in the nest. It is used as a lining to absorb excrement, after which it is scratched out and replaced by a fresh batch of grass and leaves. In spite of its size, the Ground Hornbill in flight will land on its selected spot precisely every time

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