Dec 092009
photo provided courtesy of rajkumar1220 on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSouth and Southeast Asia
HabitatForest Canopy
NicheNonmigratory Omnivore
Favorite FoodFigs
Wingspan5 feet
Weight6 pounds
StatusLower Risk

In the murkey morning gloom over the forests of Vietnam, something that sounds like a fell beast flaps overhead with massive 5 foot wings. As its alights in some distant tree, a great blast like a trumpet issues from the fog. Something lives in the Asian forests that dwarfs nearly all others that share the trees. A bird bigger than an eagle with a massive weapon of a beak, the Great Indian Hornbill is among the most spectacular birds on earth.

The best feature in the mirror for hornbills is the massive bill, clearly. The size of a rhinoceros horn and crested with a knobby lump called a casque, the bill is used for two things: snatching and breaking. Although this massive bird of flight feeds predominantly on fruit (especially figs), it will snatch up whatever small animal it can with a flick of the beak. Once secured, little is likely to escape. If it’s a lizard, the great indian hornbill will simply flick its head back and swallow it whole it one gulp. Anything larger and it employs a more violent tactic, battering the trapped body into nearby tree branches. Harmless to man, the hornbill is nonetheless a formidable presence in the Southeast Asian forests where bears and tigers roam.

Great Indian Hornbills don’t often fly. Instead, they hop sideways from branch to branch in the dense canopy of the Asian rain forest. However, they can fly, and when they do, it’s quite a spectacle. Their giant “whooshing” wingbeats can be heard by people over a half mile away. It appears that mythology of giant, imposing birds isn’t far out from reality. Yet far from fearsome, the great indian hornbill instead performs a crucial service to the rainforest. As it snatches up fig fruit and any number of seeds during a hard day’s feeding, it will spread those seeds to a new area every time it has to take a dump. As the fertilized seeds germinate and compete for light, they’re able to carry on the next generation of trees outside of the dark shadow of the tallest trunks. In reforestation efforts, the great indian hornbills are valuable stewards.

photo provided courtesy of rajkumar 1220 on Flickr Creative CommonsGreat Indian hornbills mate for life, and family life is a fascinating affair. After mating, the pair will secure a nest in the hollow trunk of a tree. Then, as the female sits inside and the male remains out in the forest, both birds begin to construct a wall of mud, twigs, and leaves between themselves. The female is entirely walled inside the tree for several months save a small hole in the mud barrier. The hole is used for two things: to allow the male to pass food into the female, and secondly, to allow her the opportunity to take care of…”business.” I wouldn’t want to be an animal roaming along that particular treetrunk when a female great indian hornbill defacates at high velocity out the interior.

After three months with the single chick, the mother will break out of the nest with her strong bill to get a proper meal herself. Junior will then repair the damaged barrier, walling himself inside the tree for another full month while mom and dad attend to him from the outside. When that month is up, he’s free to experience the world in all its danger and wonder.

Great indian hornbills cannot survive without the trees. They need them for the food they produce. They need hollow trunks to build their nests. They need the trees to hide from predators and to stalk prey. They need them to rest and to roost. There are not many forests left in Asia.

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