Dear Readers, I know that you are not supposed to have favourites, but I adore hornbills. The first one I ever met was an elderly, blind bird concave-casqued hornbill called Aasha who lived in Toronto Zoo. She would hop onto her keeper’s shoulder and gently nibble his ear, and the love was obviously mutual: the keeper explained that hornbills mate for life, and that although those beaks look terrifying, they can also be very gentle – the birds mostly eat fruit. He was so proud of his little friend, and she would fall asleep in his arms. She died at the age of 51 in 2019, and you can read a bit more about her here.
How magnificent they are when seen in their natural surroundings, though! We saw several species of hornbill, but there is something awe-inspiring about the rhinoceros hornbill. It is the national bird of Malaysia, and is considered to be the King of Worldly Birds by the Dayak people. With their stature, brightly-coloured bills and general air of superiority this comes as no surprise.
Just before flying, the male utters a deep ‘gronk’ (our guide Hazwan was expert at imitating the call, and he and the bird would often call back and forth as they flew overhead). The female joins in with a slightly higher-pitched sound. As they fly, it becomes call and response, getting faster and faster in pace. We saw them fly overhead several times and it never failed to give me goosepimples. They have a very distinctive flap-flap-flap-glide flight pattern too and, if it’s quiet, you can hear their wingbeats. You can hear the call here, and the wingbeats here.
We were lucky enough to see several species of hornbill while we were in Borneo, and another bird that was frequently sighted was the oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris). These are relatively small, unshowy birds, although they looked very exotic to us when we first saw them! Like the rhinoceros hornbills they are mainly fruit-eaters, with a side-line in birds eggs, small reptiles, spiders and other large insects. They are important dispersers of seeds in the rainforest – plants such as the wild nutmeg have tough seeds which the bird swallows whole and regurgitates later, hopefully somewhere a good distance from the parent plant.
That very fine casque on top of the head is actually hollow, which does the bird something of a favour. We were lucky enough, just once, to see a helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) in flight . Although the headgear of this species is not as fine as that of some other hornbills, it is solid, and the bird has been extensively hunted for this reason: hornbill ‘ivory’ is used extensively for carving, and was once used for the exquisite Japanese netsuke. Pity the poor creature who is the source of some luxury for humans, be it the perfume gland of the musk deer or the beaver, the tusks of the elephant or the exquisite feathers of the snowy egret. How we can ever think that these trivial status-symbols are worth the life of a creature I have no idea. I see with some anguish that bear gall is being touted as a cure for coronavirus in some parts of Asia, and it’s all I can do not to despair.
The bird has a unique call, and you can experience it here.
You can read a very interesting article about the helmeted hornbill, and what can be done to save it here.
But one of my very favourite sightings were these chaps. Wrinkled hornbills (Rhabdotorrhinus corogatus) have splendid Picassoesque faces, and are rarely seen. This one popped over into a fruiting tree and sat there obligingly for ages, while the shyer female lurked in the leaves.
I loved this bird because I had never even heard of it prior to my trip, and yet look how splendid he is! He is, of course, endangered due to deforestation. It doesn’t, of course know this, as no creature knows (apart from us) when forces outside our control or understanding are busting in, disrupting a delicately-balanced ecosystem that has been in existence for millenia.
And here, just to transport you to the rainforests of Borneo, is the call of the wrinkled hornbill, followed by the sound of him flying away. And you can enjoy all this from your computer without the smallest risk of being punctured by a mosquito. Truly the world is full of wonders.