South African Hornbills

Last week’s photo post “Treat“, featuring a family of hornbills raiding a picnic table, raised so much interest in the species that we decided to dedicate another special post to our country’s hornbills.

We’ve already introduced you to the biggest and most conspicuous of the family, the Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri). These fascinating birds are an endangered species. Have a look at our special post about the Southern Ground Hornbill to learn more.


Southern Ground Hornbill

South Africa is also home to five other species of hornbills, all much smaller than the ground hornbill and all diurnal in their habits. They share a most intriguing method of nesting and raising their chicks. Just before laying, normally in the summer rainy season, the mostly monogamous pair selects a hole in a tree (rarely in cliffs) to serve as a nest, often using the same hole for this purpose year after year. Both sexes then proceed to seal the female inside the hole, plastering up the entrance with mud, food remains and droppings, leaving only a small slit through which the male can pass food to the female and chicks. While inside the hole, the female moults and regrows her tail and flight feathers. She lies a clutch of two to seven eggs and incubates them for between 24 and 30 days (varies between the species). When the chicks are around 40 to 50 days old, the female breaks out and then helps to reseal the hole. The chicks then stay inside and are fed by both parents for another two weeks or so before breaking out and taking their first flight. The chicks stay with their parents for around eight weeks after leaving the nest and are fully grown by one year of age.

African Grey Hornbill

Lophoceros nasutus 

Length: 45 – 51cm

These hornbills can be found in acacia savannas (thornveld), mopaneveld, dry broadleaved woodlands and riverine woodlands, ranging from extreme northern Kwazulu-Natal through Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and North West Province to the Northern Cape. They include a wide variety of food in their diet, taking insects, beetles, spiders, frogs, chameleons, small rodents, chicks and eggs and some fruits, searching for food mainly in the branches of trees.

Grey Hornbills normally move around in pairs or small flocks, but may gather in larger flocks of over 100 birds in the dry winter, when they become more nomadic.

The African Grey Hornbill has a wide distribution across Africa and its population appears to be stable, with the IUCN classifying their conservation status as “Least Concern”.

Crowned Hornbill

Lophoceros alboterminatus

Length: 50 – 54cm

The Crowned Hornbill is widespread in the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal and the lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces, where it inhabits inland, coastal, mountain and riverine forests. They feed on insects, small rodents and reptiles, seeds and fruit and are mainly arboreal.

They can usually be found in pairs or in small flocks of up to seven birds.

Though the IUCN considers the Crowned Hornbill’s conservation status as “Least Concern”, it is thought that their numbers are dwindling due to loss of habitat.

Southern Red-Billed Hornbill

Tockus erythrorhynchus rufirostris

Length: 40 – 47cm

Red-billed Hornbills occupy open bushveld, thornveld, mopaneveld, thickets along streambeds and semi-arid woodland, where they prefer to search for food on the ground in open, heavily grazed areas. They have a varied diet that includes dung beetle larvae which they find in the dung of elephants and other large mammals, other insects, scorpions, the eggs and chicks of small birds, small reptiles and seeds and berries.

They move around in groups of up to twelve birds and love taking dustbaths.

The Red-billed Hornbill’s population appears to be stable, and the IUCN considers their conservation status “Least Concern”.

Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill

Tockus leucomelas

Males are generally larger than females, with a bigger beak. Length: 48 – 60cm, weight: 132 – 242g.

The Yellow-billed Hornbill is found in a wide range of habitats, from semi-arid savannas, dry broadleaved woodland and thornveld to riverine woodland, ranging from Kwazulu-Natal through Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Gauteng and North West Province to the arid Northern Cape. They have an omnivorous diet that includes insects, scorpions, snakes, rodents, eggs and chicks of small birds, berries, fruits, nuts and seeds. They feed mainly on the ground and will use its bill to turn over debris like small rocks and logs and dig in elephant dung in search of food.

Despite being widespread and common, the loss of suitable large nesting trees is causing their numbers to decline outside conservation areas. The IUCN considers the conservation status of the Yellow-billed Hornbill as “Least Concern”.

Trumpeter Hornbill

Bycanistes bucinator

Length: 58 – 65cm, Weight: 450g – 1kg

Trumpeter Hornbills inhabit evergreen lowland, coastal and riverine forests in the Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal and the lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces, and subsists on a diet of fruit, particularly from the sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus) and bushwillows, and large insects.

These birds are normally seen in small groups of about five, sometimes aggregating in flocks of up to 50, some records even mentioning 200! Their call sounds very much like a baby’s crying.

Due to an apparently stable population, wide distribution and no substantial threats to their numbers, the IUCN classifies the Trumpeter Hornbill as “Least Concern”.



68 thoughts on “South African Hornbills

  1. May Beukes

    Good morning guys/ladies
    We have the priviledge that a hornbill family made home in one of my husbands selfmade nests that he screwed in a tree in our front garden. We are following the procedure now for the last two weeks seeing the male feeding the family through a small opening after the nest has been seeled off. It seems the vabies are already hatched you can hear them


  2. Andre du Plessis

    A pair of African Grey Hornbills moved into our neighbourhood some weeks ago. They managed to evict a breeding Crested Barbet from a log we had put up in a tree, and set up their nest there.The mom is now closed up in the nest and is being fed through the narrow slit left open. We have seen some strange behaviour though; there are two males feeding her, and the two will spend hours, with food in their beeks, chasing each other away from the nest. Does anyone know what is happening? We live in Moreleta Park in Pretoria, and first noticed them, for short periods, about four years ago. They are now common here, and there are at least four of them in our vicinity.


    1. de Wets Wild Post author

      What a wonderful observation, Andre, and thank you for sharing it here. Grey Hornbills have really settled well in suburban Pretoria and Johannesburg in the last few years and we are certainly not complaining. Your comments about the competing males trying to feed the female is most interesting, and not something mentioned in any of our reference books, all of which claim that Grey Hornbills are monogamous. Perhaps you’d want to submit the information to the UCT’s FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology?


      1. Andre du Plessis

        An update on the Grey Hornbills breeding in our yard. The whole process seemed to us very long, and we watched them day by day as the parents took turns feeding the chicks. The food was mostly insects, frogs and lizards, but we did see the parents bringing baby birds that they must have stolen from other nests. On the 24th of December the whole family seemed to disappear. A hole appeared at the very top of the log. For the last couple of days we have heard their distinctive call in the vicinity but it was only the last two days that we have seen the parents again.We have not seen the chick(s). The parents seem to be acting strange, they approach the log and will peer into the holes. I hope the chick(s) have not been caught by predators. How often do these birds breed in a season? How can I post photos?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. de Wets Wild Post author

        It seems a reasonable assumption that the chicks have met some dismal fate, Andre, and though it’s difficult to determine what got to them I suspect it might have been a genet, which is fairly common in eastern Pretoria though seldom seen. I am sorry to hear this news after you’ve documented the breeding process so studiously; hopefully the parents now returning to the nest is a sign that they’ll try again with there still being three months left of summer.

        Unfortunately you’ll not be able to post photos in the comments, but if you have the photos uploaded to a site somewhere you’re welcome to put up a link to them here.


  3. Phillip

    I live next to the botanical gardens in Pta. About 3 years ago a pair of Grey Hornbills started nesting there in an old crested barbet nest. At first the female could not enter the nest after which I enlarged the entrance slightly. She occupied the nest shortly afterwards and since then they never left. we have had the opportunity to see what fabulous parents these birds are. They now seem more like neighbours than garden birds. They are incredibly intelligent and seem to sense our good intentions. Magnificent birds. We will miss them greatly the day they decide to leave.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. de Wets Wild Post author

      What an incredible opportunity, Phillip, to study their very unique nesting habits from up close! Your garden must be quite something for them to choose it over the nearby botanical garden!


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  5. Gordon Parratt

    Live in Pretoria and attend our church in Faerie Glen where it is very built-up. Was surprised to see that a pair of grey horn bills have set up a nest on one of our small balconies off the main building & have produced a chick. So it seems that they are not totally arboreal, perhaps forced to resort to a building because of loss of habitat, We do worry about them being harassed by crows, myna’s or owls. Great to see the horn bills there, such characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. amoralegria

    The one you call trumpeter hornbill – I took a picture of one of these in Tanzania and someone identified it as “silvery cheeked hornbill” – trumpeter makes more sense, I think!?


    1. de Wets Wild Post author

      Depending on where you live you may be lucky for some wild ones to come and reside by supplying them with their favourite food or suitable nesting sites. We have a resident pair of grey hornbills here where we stay in Pretoria.


      1. Elsa de Jager

        I saw a Grey Hornbill in my garden in the suburb of Glenhazel in Johannesburg on the weekend – is this normal?


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    Die eerste footo is darem so sprekend en baie mooi. Nou het ek weer lekker in die Bosveld gery! Van Potties na Naboom was daar altyd bedrywige neushorings wat so met hul spesial manier van vlieg oor pad vlieg na die volgende bome! het dit nou sommer baie geniet. selfs die begrafnisondernemer is ook n besonderse een.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. aj vosse

    Ek onthou, as ‘n klein laaitjie, my oupa was nie maatjies met hulle nie. Hulle het dikwils kom vrugte steel! Ek het toestemming gekry om my kettie te gebruik!! Ek kon onthou hoe hulle my gekoggel het!!! 😉 Nee… ek het nooit raak geskiet nie… baie pret!! 😛

    Liked by 1 person


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