Perhaps we humans might require the help of ‘Aadhaar’ to lay claim to our identity. Thankfully, there is no such fuss in the bird kingdom — they are all easily identifiable thanks to their beaks, which can be flat, hooked or cone-shaped. And the one bird that can be identified a mile away on account of its dramatic looking beak is the hornbill. Beautiful to look at and shy by nature, it is a delight as much as a challenge to photograph it.
Of the 53 species of hornbills in the world, eight are in India, with four found in south India alone. The great hornbill, pied hornbill and Malabar hornbill are endemic to Western Ghats while the grey hornbills are found in deciduous forests. These magnificent birds are arboreal in nature and remain high up in the trees; they come to the ground when they need a mud bath, which they do as a group.
One place where these birds can be sighted as easily as, say, crows is in Dandeli, Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka. I still remember the first time that I came across the great pied hornbill. During a holiday in Dandeli we were lounging near the banks of the mighty Kali river. It was evening, getting close to dusk, and a cool gentle breeze blew across the forest fringes. And then just as the sun was bidding goodbye we saw this creature flapping across the river, as if in spurts and gasps, with its wings making a swooshing sound before it was swallowed up by the deep forests on the other side of the river. Another fond memory is the sighting of dozens of Malabar pied hornbills on many trees near the timber department of the Dandeli forest and being privy to their intimate moments.
Hornbills love to feast on fruits, especially the ficus variety. Perhaps one reason why Dandeli attracts hundreds of hornbills is because the forests there are blessed with more than 40 ficus species. The forest supplies the hornbill with one or the other variety of fruit all through the year. It’s a delightful sight to see hornbills carefully picking the red and very ripe ficus fruit with their bills and feeding silently. The bird has a small tongue and its bill is very large so it has to bring the fruit from the tip of the bill to the gullet which it does by tossing up the fruit backwards and jerking its head. They stock
dozens of fruit in their throats and take them back to their nest.
But the fig trees are in isolated places and the hornbills have to travel long distances in search of them. Hence conservation of the ficus species is very important for the survival of the hornbills. Hornbills help in ficus seed dispersal. Teaching children about this kind of mutual association will help them to appreciate the environment better.
Hornbills use the same nests year after year and as such their nesting behaviour is totally different from that of other birds. Finding a natural hollow cavity inside tree trunks, the female stays put there for the next three months. It lays two-three eggs inside, plastering the entrance with sticky fruit and even its own excreta, living behind only a small opening that allows it to use its bill to get food from the male.
This is to ensure the protection of its young ones from predators. The eggs hatch after five weeks.
Both the female and its young ones are highly dependent upon the male who supplies them with food — fruit and for a while, lizards and small tree snakes for the little ones.