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Great hornbill. © Biraj Sarkar/ BIA / Minden / Nature Picture Library

Great hornbill. © Biraj Sarkar/ BIA / Minden / Nature Picture Library


More than just a big beak 


Hornbills are among the world’s most charismatic and exotic birds. Their large size, massive beaks, striking and colourful headgear and generally noisy behaviour make them conspicuous wherever they occur. Their strange nesting habits are just one of many features that make hornbills so intriguing.

They range in size from dwarf hornbills in West Africa to the ground hornbill, which is almost the size of a turkey and prefers open savannah. The largest hornbills in Asia are the great hornbill and helmeted hornbill. These two top-heavy forest giants are threatened with extinction, and Fauna & Flora is actively involved in protecting both species.

Fascinating facts about hornbills

    Hard hats

    The prominent structure on top of a hornbill’s beak is known as a casque, which is French for ‘helmet’.

    Hornbill feeding partner. © Tim Laman / Nature Picture Library

    Hornbill feeding partner. © Tim Laman / Nature Picture Library

    Food parcel

    Hornbills use their gular pouch – the pocket of bare, loose, wrinkled skin on their throat – to carry multiple items of food back to the nest.

    300 grams

    The weight of a helmeted hornbill’s casque – over 10% of the bird’s entire body weight.

    Rhinoceros hornbill. © hafizzat / Adobe Stock

    Rhinoceros hornbill. © hafizzat / Adobe Stock

    Head bird

    The Indigenous Iban on the island of Borneo consider hornbills as a symbol of purity and power, and regard the rhinoceros hornbill as the king of birds.

    Full moult

    The female hornbill moults all her flight feathers (wings and tail) at once while she is incubating her eggs.

Where do hornbills live?

Hornbills are found in Africa and Asia. There are around 60 species in total, divided almost equally between those two continents. Many of the world’s hornbills, particularly in Asia, are found in tropical and subtropical forest.

Hornbill habitat. © Tim Laman / Nature Picture Library

Hornbill habitat. © Tim Laman / Nature Picture Library

Rhinoceros hornbills perched high in the canopy of a tall emergent tree at the heart of an unspoilt tract of lowland rainforest.

What do hornbills eat? 

Hornbills are omnivores. In other words, they’ll eat anything they can catch, from lizards and small mammals to giant stick insects. The hornbills that live in Asia’s tropical forests eat a lot of fruit. Great hornbills and helmeted hornbills are very fond of figs and will gorge themselves when these trees when they are in fruit. As fruit eaters, hornbills perform a valuable role as seed dispersers, helping the forest to regenerate.

Hornbill family life

The nesting behaviour of most hornbills, including the great hornbill and helmeted hornbill, is unique among birds. When she is ready to lay eggs, the female hornbill enters the nest hole – typically a hollow in a mature tree – and, with the help of the male, walls herself in. Between them, they narrow the entrance in order to keep out predators and rival hornbills. The male works from the outside using compacted mud, while the female may use her own droppings as a kind of makeshift cement.

While she is imprisoned, which may be for several months, the female relies on the male to bring her food – and to feed the nestlings once they have hatched. The entrance to the nest hole is a narrow slit just wide enough to allow food to pass through. Males carry larger individual prey items back to the nest in their beak, but they also collect large quantities of fruit in their throat pouch and then – once back at the nest site – regurgitate them one by one before passing them to the female.

Helmeted hornbill

The helmeted hornbill is arguably the most extraordinary of Asia’s forest hornbills. Its visual appearance – characterised by bizarre facial features and disproportionately long central tail feathers – is striking enough, but this bird is more often heard than seen. It is famous for its unique and arresting call, which ends in a show-stopping flurry of hysterical laughter. The male and female helmeted hornbill can be distinguished by the colour of their throat pouches, which are red and turquoise respectively.

Helmeted hornbills show a marked preference for pristine lowland tropical rainforest with an abundant supply of fruiting trees. They are confined to suitable forest habitat in Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. Unfortunately, their numbers have plummeted in recent years.

Hornbills flying. © JT Jeeraphun / Adobe Stock

Hornbills flying. © JT Jeeraphun / Adobe Stock

A pair of helmeted hornbills in flight, distinguished by the colour of the bare skin on their necks, which is red in the male and blue in the female.

Great hornbill

If the helmeted hornbill is the longest of Asia’s hornbills, the great hornbill is the bulkiest, as its name suggests, measuring around one metre from beak to tail. Great hornbills have mainly black-and-white plumage. Their most striking features are their bright-yellow neck, beak and casque – and their piercing eyes. You can tell great hornbills apart by the colour of their eyes – red in the male, bluish-white in the female. Both sexes have prominent eyelashes. In flight, the great hornbill’s wingbeats produce a loud rushing noise that sounds a bit like a steam train.

The great hornbill relies on large tracts of undisturbed forest and is highly vulnerable to deforestation. Its range extends across mainland Asia from India through China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and peninsular Malaysia to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Great hornbill in flight. © Chamnan Phanthong / Adobe Stock

Great hornbill in flight. © Chamnan Phanthong / Adobe Stock

A male great hornbill in flight, distinguished by his red eye colour.

What are the main threats to hornbills?

The most serious long-term threat to Asia’s hornbills is habitat loss and fragmentation. The forest landscapes on which the great hornbill and helmeted hornbill depend for food and nest sites are shrinking rapidly. Severe hunting pressure is also a major cause of their decline, and there is compelling evidence that illegal wildlife trade poses the most immediate threat to the survival of the helmeted hornbill.

Typically, hornbill casques are light and hollow, but the helmeted hornbill’s headgear is – uniquely – a solid, ivory-like block. Helmeted hornbills are hunted and killed for this so-called ‘red ivory’, which can be carved into ornaments and jewellery. Increasing demand for these products, combined with rapid deforestation, poses a grave threat to the survival of the species throughout most of its range.

In Sumatra, for example, the species has almost entirely disappeared from areas where it was previously abundant. The species is under sustained assault from commercial-scale hunting parties coordinated by organised criminal networks that are profiting from the growing demand for hornbill ‘ivory’, particularly in China and Japan.

The helmeted hornbill’s recent decline has been precipitous. In 2015, its official status on the IUCN Red List was changed from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered literally overnight, a dramatic revision that saw it leapfrog other levels of threat completely. The great hornbill is categorised as Vulnerable.

Confiscated casques of helmeted hornbills. © Tim Laman / Nature Picture Library

Confiscated casques of helmeted hornbills. © Tim Laman / Nature Picture Library

Helmeted hornbill casques intercepted by the authorities during an attempt by illegal wildlife traders to ship them overseas.

How can we help to save Asia’s hornbills?

Helmeted hornbills and great hornbills are both benefiting – directly and indirectly – from the work of Fauna & Flora and our partners in Southeast Asia.

In Sumatra’s Kerinci Seblat National Park, the anti-poaching and forest protection activities of tiger protection teams are having a tangible impact on illegal wildlife trade, disrupting the trafficking networks that deal not only in tigers and timber, but also in pangolin scales and helmeted hornbill ‘ivory’.

Close collaboration with the park authorities and provincial police departments has led to improved law enforcement, including coordinated action to counter the activities of organised illegal wildlife trade syndicates and the kingpin traders driving wildlife and forest crime in and around Sumatra’s largest protected area.

Fauna & Flora is also monitoring the population of the great hornbill in Myanmar, where information on the status of this threatened bird is scarce. We have discovered several nesting sites in the Arakan Mountains, where we have been working with local partners since 2012 to protect the endangered western hoolock gibbon. The long-term plan is to secure further funding to expand our great hornbill conservation work in this area.

Helmeted hornbill. © JT Jeeraphun / Adobe Stock

Final call?

Together we can ensure that Asia’s threatened hornbills never fall silent.
Please help us to save these incredible birds.

Donate today

Helmeted hornbill. © JT Jeeraphun / Adobe Stock