Hornbills: Farmers of our forests

In April this year, The Hindu launched an exclusive schools edition. NCF has a weekly column each Wednesday in this paper, on wildlife, nature, conservation and other things directly or indirectly related to these.

Twice a week on this blog, we’ll post the pieces that have appeared in the column.

By Aparajita Datta

Hornbills are unique birds: they get their name from the horn-like projection called a casque on their beaks (though not all species have them). They are larger than other forest birds. Hornbills have no feathers below their wings, and the air rushing through makes a whooshing sound that can be heard from very far away.

When it’s time to breed, they look for hollows on tall trees and the mother hornbill goes in and locks herself up inside, sealing it with her droppings, leaving a slit for food to be passed through. The father hornbill has to feed her and the chicks through the long breeding season.

Hornbills are flashy with strange beaks, bright skin around their eyes, long eyelashes and most have a brilliantly colored pouch of loose skin at their throat. In this, they carry lots of fruit, which is their favorite food.

Do you like figs? Hornbills love them. When a fig tree in the forest is in fruit, you are sure to find hornbills gorging noisily on them. They also eat many other kinds of fruits. But their diet is not complete without beetles, lizards, crabs and even the occasional rat.

Hornbills are very picky; they eat only the ripest fruits. They test the softness of the fruit with their beaks before deciding to eat it.

Hornbills swallow fruits whole. Most fruits they eat have large seeds. The fleshy part is removed in the hornbill’s stomach and digested. The cleaned seeds travel up from the stomach, come out in the mouth and are spat out.

Freshly dropped seeds have a pinkish colour. I discovered this one day, when I was following a Great hornbill in Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. The Great hornbill after feeding on the black fruits of a laurel, flew to a fig tree and perched for some time. I saw it spitting out seeds. After it flew off, I searched under the canopy. There were many seeds; I touched one. It was warm, clean and pink!

The colour maybe due to acids produced in the hornbill’s stomach when the fruit is being processed. Most seeds come out from the mouth; only the tiny seeds of figs are passed out in its droppings. If you go roaming in a forest with hornbills, look under trees where hornbills have perched, or under their nest and roost trees.

Hornbills fly long distances looking for fruits. The seeds are spat out several hours later somewhere else. As they spit out countless seeds, some seeds find a place to grow and become new trees. That’s why many trees in tropical forests produce juicy coloured fruits: so that hornbills can ‘ plant’ the seeds elsewhere in the forest. Hornbills like fruits that are black, red or orange in colour.

Hornbills need large, dense forests to survive. Forests that are the hornbills’ habitat are being cut down for timber, mines and to grow crops and vegetables. They are also hunted.

Hornbills symbolise a healthy forest. They are important in keeping the forest alive. If we lose hornbills, many forest trees that depend on them to spread their seeds may eventually disappear from the forest too. A forest will be a lonely place without these intriguing birds.

  • In India, we have nine species of hornbills. The commonest of our hornbills, the Indian Grey Hornbill, can even be seen in city parks. Look for it near large fig trees like banyans and peepals.
  • The Rufous-necked hornbill and the Narcondam hornbill are considered endangered. The Narcondam hornbill is found only one single island of 6 km2! The Brown hornbill is rare in India; found in parts of north-east India. The Great hornbill, the largest one in India, is threatened locally.

This article originally appeared in the Hindu in School on 4 April 2012.

1 thought on “Hornbills: Farmers of our forests

  1. Wow. Very nicely written in simple language. It is really wonderful to see that you have a regular section in the newspaper. I am inspired to explore something like this for public health too. Do try local language newspapers too.

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