The Southern Ground Hornbill is an easily recognisable bird that occurs in the northern and eastern parts of South Africa. Turkey-sized, weighing up to 6 kilograms, very confident, and with the longest eyelashes imaginable, they make great photographic subjects.
Ground hornbills are mostly found in woodland or savanna with large trees used for roosting, and nesting in deep holes in often dead trees.
In the early morning, their booming, lion-like, calls can be heard up to 3 kilometres away. Groups of between 2 and 11 individuals occupy home ranges of about 100 square kilometres. These groups consist of a dominant alpha pair, the only ones in the group that breed, and their “helpers” of various ages. Though they lay clutches of two or three eggs between September and December and incubate the eggs for 45 days, only one hatchling is raised to fledging, the others either dying of neglect or being killed by their older sibling. The chick leaves its tree-hole nest at three months of age and is then cared for by its parents and their helpers for up to two years. This means that a pair of ground hornbills produce a maximum of one offspring only once in three years which is an exceptionally low rate of reproduction for a bird – some studies have found that only one chick every nine years reaches adulthood! Ground hornbills can live for up to 30 years in the wild.
Though they are quite capable flyers, you’ll mostly see them striding across the savanna – they can walk distances up to 11 km a day – searching for food. Ground hornbills are predators and their diet ranges from small fry like insects, snails, lizards and frogs to large snakes and mammals up to the size of hares! They’re often encountered near veldfires and on burned areas, searching for exposed prey fleeing the flames or scorched morsels ready for the picking. They’ve also learnt that visitors to game reserves often offer handouts of food from inside motor vehicles, a practice that should not be encouraged as it is detrimental to their health and negatively affects their natural behaviour.
Unfortunately, the Southern Ground Hornbill is an endangered species in South Africa. Having lost much of its habitat to farming practices and tree harvesting, they’re also targeted by poachers supplying the traditional medicine (or muthi) trade, in which their ground up bones are regarded as “protection” against lightning strikes. This, coupled with their slow reproductive rate, has pushed them to the brink of being wiped out. Today, the only place in the country where they can be found reliably is in the Kruger National Park, where the population stands at about 700 individuals. In an effort to boost their numbers, conservators often remove the second-laid egg from nests for hand-rearing and then later release the juvenile bird back into the wild, and in this way founder populations have been re-established at a handful of reserves from which they’ve disappeared.