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African Landscapes from South Africa: The Birds-Hornbills

Updated on July 25, 2015

Southern African Birds

There are about 950 different bird species in Southern Africa. Ten are known as Hornbills and it is obvious why.

Crowned Hornbill
Crowned Hornbill | Source
Ground Hornbill in Kruger Game Reserve
Ground Hornbill in Kruger Game Reserve | Source
Red-billed Hornbill
Red-billed Hornbill | Source
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill | Source
Trumpeter Hornbill
Trumpeter Hornbill | Source
Big Yawn
Big Yawn | Source

Look at that nose!

If there is one kind of bird that typifies the African Wilderness it is the family of birds called Hornbills. Their cry is easy to recognize, their irregular flight pattern unique, and their long, large beaks unmistakable.

They are monogamous (one partner usually for life) and the female breeds in a hole in a tree that is cemented closed with mud, allowing just a small hole for the male to feed her. The chicks are altricial (dependent of parents for food and heat).

There are ten species of Hornbill in Southern Africa including the Ground Hornbill. Three are found in the Eastern Cape; the Ground Hornbill, Trumpeter Hornbill and Crowned Hornbill. We have enjoyed visits of the Crowned and Trumpeter Hornbill in our garden over the years and earlier this week were thrilled to have a Crowned Hornbill feeding in a flower bed outside our lounge, providing a great photographic opportunity.

A visit to any of the Game Reserves in South Africa will be certain to present close up views of the local species of Hornbill along the road and even in the camps and picnic spots. They become used to looking for food in the camps that often have many fruiting trees and even scavenge for scraps in the area. They become quite tame and approach people with little fear.

No wonder the producers of the great Walt Disney classic Lion King casted Zazu a Hornbill as the right hand bird to Mafasa, Simbas Dad. He enjoyed a starring role and even singing some of the Elton John songs.

Southern Ground Hornbill.

Called “Bromvoel” in Afrikaans (Grunting) after its deep booming call it is by far the largest of the Hornbills and looks somewhat like a turkey. These large birds move about in small groups and are territorial, chasing away neighboring groups. Their territory is estimated to be about 20 square kilometers in the more densely populated areas like near Mana Pools in Zimbabwe. They move together in a group across the veldt foraging for food that includes insects, frogs, snails, snakes and even small animals. In the Game reserves they will often move along next to the road at a fairly fast pace. They have been killed at times in tribal aresa by Sangomas for “muti” to bring rain. They have also been persecuted because of their habit of damaging vehicles in attacking their own reflection with their strong beaks in defending their territory. About 1500-2000 is estimated to be the present population.It is interesting to note that these birds do not drink water but rather gets moisture from the food they eat

Trumpeter Hornbill.

This relatively small Hornbill, about the size of a Crow lives in the forest where it feeds on fruit and insects. Hops around in the trees in groups of five or six and can be seen in our area flying to and from their roosting area in the evening and morning. Their call is a loud laughing, crying, wailing one, that can be mistaken for a child crying in distress.

Crowned Hornbill.

The other Hornbill that is found in the Eastern Cape is called “Gekroonde Neushoringvoel” in Afrikaans which translate means “Crowned nose horn bird”, a good descriptive name. Usually found in pairs and frequents thorn thickets, Savannah and dense woodland. Its food is mainly fruit but also eats snails, seeds and small birds. They fly with a dip in between every few wing beats and can be easily identified by their large red casqued bill.

The Other Hornbills.

In order to see the rest of the Hornbills one has to travel to the Northern parts of South Africa and even further north. The Silverycheeked Hornbill is found mainly in Zimbabwe and Mozambique and may just with a bit of luck be found in the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park in the North/East corner of the country.

The Grey, Southern Yellowbilled and Redbilled Hornbills are also found in the countries to the north but are also common residents in the northern parts of South Africa in the savannah, thornveld and woodland areas.

Bradfield’s and Monteiro’s Hornbill resides to the North West and one would have to travel to Namibia and Zambia in order to add them to your life list. In fact it would be quite an achievement to be able to list all ten of this family of birds.A visit to the Kruger National Park for a couple of days would assure one of seeing 4/5 different kinds.

If you have not watched the Lion King do yourself a favor and do so, You are bound to fall in love with the Hornbill Zazu, with the great voice and sense of humor. The movie is also a good commentary on Africa in general, on both the human and environmental level.

Source: Robers' Birds of South Africa:7th Edition


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    • Johan Smulders profile imageAUTHOR

      Johan Smulders 

      5 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Watched the movie again and liked the Hornbill.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      The hornbills sound wonderful, and they are so distinctive. I have seen the Lion King, and I wondered about Zazu. Thanks again, Johan.

    • Johan Smulders profile imageAUTHOR

      Johan Smulders 

      5 years ago from East London, South Africa

      You are lucky to have such a great birding venue at your home.

    • Gill Harris profile image

      Gill Harris 

      5 years ago from South Africa

      I am always amazed at the variety of calls these creatures seem to have. It is almost like they imitate other birds. I often get the hornbills and kingfishers confused when listening to their calls. They share a similar piiip, piiip, which always aounds rediculous coming from such large birds. They a lot of fun to have around!


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