Birdy Spotlight – Hornbills

Written by Josh Caraballo, Animal Care Professional

Hornbills come in all shapes and sizes here at ZooTampa! Several species of hornbills are in our care from the smallest Red-billed hornbills like Zazu from the Lion King to larger ones like Great Indian hornbills. These birds are a unique group for a couple of different reasons. For example, their first two neck vertebrae have been fused to support their large bills – whoa! They are also known for their nesting habits. The female will “mud” or seal themselves into a tree cavity with help from their mates, leaving only a small slit through which the male provides food. She will remain sealed inside the nest for 3-5 months depending on the species.  During this time, she will completely molt and re-grow her feathers. When the chicks become large and the nest becomes crowded, the female will break out of the nest, reseal it and assist the male with feedings. The chicks will break out of the nest when they are ready to fly.  At this point, the parents will teach them how to eat and hunt on their own to become completely independent.

Birdy Spotlight - Hornbills - ZooTampa at Lowry Park
Birdy Spotlight - Hornbills - ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Great Indian hornbills are found scattered throughout their range on the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The abundance of this species tends to be correlated with the density of large trees, required for nesting, and are most common in unlogged forests. These birds are 37-50 inches long with a large, lightweight casque –a helmetlike structure on top of the bill. Their plumage is boldly patterned in black, white and yellow. The yellow comes from a preen gland that is located at the base of their tails. They rub their bills on this gland and spread the yellow oil on their feathers. The male typically has a larger casque, red iris and black around the eyes and frontal area of the casque. The female's irises are white-light blue, with red skin around their eyes and no black on the frontal portion of the casque. Great Indian hornbills face many threats in the wild including deforestation, poaching, and the illegal wildlife trade.

ZooTampa is a member of The Association of Zoos and Aquariums or (AZA) and we participate in Species Survival Plans (SSP) for four hornbill species. Programs like the SSP are a way for zoos and aquariums to help protect and preserve this, and others, species for future generations.

While we have SSP programs in place for some hornbill species, their wild cousins like the Helmeted Hornbill are in need of our help as they have become Critically Endangered in a matter of a few years. They have a solid casque, unlike most hornbills that have hollow casques and are hunted for their casques to be carved into trinkets which are sold on the black market.  ZooTampa is committed to wildlife conservation efforts locally and globally. Through grants from our conservation fund, we work with our partners to help protect and preserve various hornbill species in Africa and Asia. You can help your feathered friends by visiting the Zoo and our Great Indian hornbill in the Main Aviary.