Red-billed hornbill

As the name suggests, hornbills are noted for their large curved beaks. Namibia has a number of different hornbills varying from the largest of the species (the southern ground hornbill) to one of the smallest (the southern red-billed hornbill). The most common species is the southern yellow-billed hornbill, nicknamed the flying banana for fairly obvious reasons!

Most African species of hornbill prefer open woodland and savannah. Damara and Monteiro’s are mainly found in the northwest region of Namibia whereas the African grey and Southern yellow-billed hornbills have a wider distribution throughout Namibia.

The long, curved beaks are the most distinctive feature of hornbills. This makes flying more cumbersome and you can often identify them from their undulating flight pattern – a few flaps followed by a downward glide. Most Namibian hornbills have dark grey wings (often with white spots) and white plumage on their breasts. They have long tail feathers and beautiful eyelashes that are actually adapted feathers.

Southern yellow-billed hornbill
Southern yellow-billed hornbill
Southern yellow-billed hornbill
Southern yellow-billed hornbill

Behaviour / Breeding:
They’re quite the romantics! They are monogamous and generally live in breeding pairs or small family groups. Courtship involves displays of bowing, bobbing and fanning of wings. This commences around the start of the rainy season. The male also woos the female with presents of food, colourful flowers and knickknacks.

Once they have mated, a tree or rock cavity is found and lined ready for the female to lay her eggs. The female is then sealed inside the nest (slightly less romantic) with a mud wall that both parents build. Only a small opening is left, through which she is fed by her mate and from which she accurately squirts out her faeces. After all, who wants a poopy bedroom. Once the eggs are laid, the female moults, making her even more vulnerable. Following an incubation period of 3-4 weeks, the eggs hatch but the chicks remain in the nest for at least another 6 weeks. The female waits for 3 weeks after hatching before leaving her confinement, but the chicks rebuild the wall to keep them safe. Both parents then feed the chicks through the new nest opening until the chicks are old enough to fend for themselves. This transition is noted by a change in their call. Once this happens and the delivery service comes to an end, hunger forces the chicks to break down the wall of their nest and make a bid for freedom.

They are omnivorous and mainly feed on the ground, foraging for seeds as well as catching insects, small rodents and reptiles. During the dry season, they often eat ants and termites. Their beaks are surprisingly dexterous but due to their short tongues, they normally flick their prey straight into their mouth and swallow it whole.
Southern yellow-billed hornbills are known to form a symbiotic relationship with mongooses. While the mongooses upturn stones and dig for food, the hornbills catch anything that escapes. In return, the hornbills raise the alarm to nearby predators.

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