The great hornbill (
Buceros bicornis) also known as the great Indian
hornbill or great pied hornbill, is one of the larger members of the
hornbill family. It is found in the
Indian subcontinent and Southeast
Asia. Its impressive size and colour have made it important in many
tribal cultures and rituals. The great hornbill is long-lived, living
for nearly 50 years in captivity. It is predominantly frugivorous, but
is an opportunist and will prey on small mammals, reptiles and birds.
3 Distribution and habitat
4 Behaviour and ecology
4.1 Food and feeding
5 In captivity
6 Conservation status
7 In culture
7.1 Use as a symbol
9 Other sources
10 External links
A male in flight, Western Ghats, India
A female great hornbill carries food in her beak to feed the chicks.
The iris, underside of the casque and orbital skin colours vary
between the sexes
The great hornbill is a large bird, 95–130 cm (37–51 in)
long, with a 152 cm (60 in) wingspan and a weight of
2.15–4 kg (4.7–8.8 lb). It is the heaviest, but not the
longest, Asian hornbill. Females are smaller than males and have
bluish-white instead of red eyes, although the orbital skin is
pinkish. Like other hornbills, they have prominent "eyelashes".
The most prominent feature of the hornbill is the bright yellow and
black casque on top of its massive bill. The casque appears U-shaped
when viewed from the front, and the top is concave, with two ridges
along the sides that form points in the front, whence the Latin
species epithet bicornis (two-horned). The back of the casque is
reddish in females, while the underside of the front and back of the
casque is black in males.
The casque is hollow and serves no known purpose, although it is
believed to be the result of sexual selection. Male hornbills have
been known to indulge in aerial casque butting, with birds striking
each other in flight. The male spreads the preen gland secretion,
which is yellow, onto the primary feathers and bill to give them the
bright yellow colour. The commissure of the beak is black and has a
serrated edge which becomes worn with age.
The wing beats are heavy and the sound produced by birds in flight can
be heard from a distance. This sound has been likened to the puffing
of a steam locomotive starting up. The flight involves stiff flaps
followed by glides with the fingers splayed and upcurled. They
sometimes fly at great height over forests.
Illustration by English zoological artist
T. W. Wood
T. W. Wood showing the
eyelashes, worn bill edge and the concave casque with ridged sides
The species was formerly broken into subspecies cavatus, from the
Western Ghats, and homrai, the nominate form from the sub-Himalayan
forests. The subspecies from
Sumatra was sometimes called
cristatus. Variation across populations is mainly in size,
Himalayan birds being larger than those from further south, and the
species is now usually considered monotypic.
Like other members of the hornbill family, they have highly
pneumatized bones, with hollow air cavities extending to the tips of
the wing bones. This anatomical feature was noted by Richard Owen, who
dissected a specimen that died at the Zoological Society of London in
Distribution and habitat
Great hornbills are found in the forests of India, Bhutan, Nepal,
Mainland Southeast Asia, Indonesian Island of
Sumatra and North
eastern region of India. The distribution of the species is fragmented
over its range in the
Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. In the
subcontinent they are found in a few forest areas in the Western Ghats
and in the forests along the Himalayas. Their distribution extends
into Thailand, Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. A small feral
population is found in Singapore. Their habitat is dense old growth
(unlogged) forests in hilly regions. They appear to be
dependent on large stretches of forest, unlike many of the smaller
In Thailand the home range of males was found to be about 3.7 km2
during the breeding season and about 14.7 km2 during the
Behaviour and ecology
Food and feeding
Captive feeding in Rotterdam
Great hornbills are usually seen in small parties, with larger groups
sometimes aggregating at fruit trees. A congregation of 150 to 200
birds has been recorded in southeastern Bhutan. In the wild, the
great hornbill's diet consists mainly of fruit. Figs are particularly
important as a food source.
Vitex altissima has been noted as
another important food source. Great hornbills also forage on
lipid-rich fruits of the Lauraceae and Myristicaceae families such as
Alseodaphne and Myristica. They obtain the water that they
need entirely from their diet of fruits. They are important dispersers
of many forest tree species. They will also eat small mammals,
birds, small reptiles and insects. Lion-tailed macaques have
been seen to forage alongside these hornbills.
They forage along branches, moving along by hopping, looking for
insects, nestling birds and small lizards, tearing up bark and
examining them. Prey are caught, tossed in the air and swallowed. A
rare squirrel, the
Travancore flying squirrel
Travancore flying squirrel (Petinomys
fuscocapillus) has been eaten, and
Indian scops owl
Indian scops owl (Otus bakkamoena),
jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) and
Sri Lanka green pigeon
Sri Lanka green pigeon (Treron
pompadora) have been taken as prey in the Western Ghats.
Male feeding the female at the nest
During the breeding season (January to April) great hornbills
become very vocal. They make loud duets, beginning with a loud "kok"
given about once a second by the male, to which the female joins in.
The pair then calls in unison, turning into a rapid mixture of roars
and barks. They prefer mature forests for nesting. Large, tall and
old trees, particularly emergents that rise above the canopy, seem to
be preferred for nesting. They form monogamous pair bonds and
live in small groups of 2-40 individuals. Group courtship displays
involving up to 20 birds have been observed.
The female hornbill builds a nest in the hollow of a large tree trunk,
sealing the opening with a plaster made up mainly of feces.
She remains imprisoned there, relying on the male to bring her food,
until the chicks are half developed. During this period the female
undergoes a complete moult. The young chicks have no feathers and
appear very plump. The mother is fed by her mate through a slit in the
seal. The clutch consists of one or two eggs, which she incubates for
38–40 days. The female voids feces through the nest slit, as do the
chicks from the age of two weeks. Once the female emerges from the
nest, the chicks seal it again.
The young birds have no trace of a casque. After the second year the
front extremity separates from the culmen, and in the third year it
becomes a transverse crescent with the two edges growing outwards and
upwards, while the anterior widens to the width of the rear end. Full
development takes five years.
Roost sites are used regularly and birds arrive punctually at sunset
from long distances, following the same routes each day. Several tall
trees in the vicinity may be used, the birds choosing the highest
branches with little foliage. They jockey for position until late at
dusk. When sleeping they draw their neck back and the bill is held
upwards at an angle.
At Palmitos Park, Spain
Very few hornbills are held in captivity, and few of them breed well.
Females at the nests are extremely easy to capture, and birds caught
in the wild are mostly female. Breeding them in captivity has been
notoriously difficult, with fewer than a dozen successful attempts.
Their extreme selectivity for mates and their long and strong pair
bonds make them difficult to maintain for breeding.
In captivity hornbills eat fruits and meat, a healthy diet consisting
mostly of fruit and some source of protein. A few have been tamed in
captivity but hornbill behavior in captivity is described as highly
strung. Captive specimens may bask in the sun with outstretched
Due to habitat loss and hunting in some areas, the great hornbill is
evaluated as near threatened on the
IUCN Red List
IUCN Red List of Threatened
Species. It is listed in Appendix I of CITES. Declines in
population have been noted in many areas such as Cambodia.
Molecular approaches to the study of their population diversity have
Tribal peoples threaten the great Indian hornbill by hunting it for
its various parts. The beaks and head are used in charms and the flesh
is believed to be medicinal. Young birds are considered a delicacy.
Tribesmen in parts of northeastern
India and Borneo use the feathers
for head-dresses, and the skulls are often worn as
decorations. The Sema Nagas consider the flesh unfit for
eating, believing that it produces sores on their feet, as in the
bird. When dancing with the feathers of the hornbill, they avoid
eating vegetables, as doing so is also believed to produce the same
sores on the feet. Among the Zomi, a festival without a hornbill
feather is incomplete. Conservation programmes have attempted to
provide tribes with feathers from captive hornbills and ceramic
casques to substitute for natural ones.
The great hornbill is called homrai in
Nepal (hence the name of the
Himalayan subspecies) and banrao, both meaning "king of the forest".
It is called "Vezhaambal" in Malayalam. 
A Nishi tribesman from
Arunachal Pradesh wearing the traditional
head-dress featuring an artificial hornbill beak
A Paite tribesman wearing a hornbill feather in his head-dress.
Chin State in Myanmar.
Use as a symbol
Photo of "William", who lived at the premises of the Bombay Natural
History Society and was the inspiration for the logo of the Society.
The great hornbill is the state bird of
Chin State in Myanmar, and of
Arunachal in India.
Hornbill is used as the logo of
Kerala Evergreen FC an
Indian professional football club based in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala,
India, that competes in the I-League
A great hornbill called William (pictured) was the model for the logo
Bombay Natural History Society
Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the name of their
building. Sir Norman Kinnear described William as follows in the
obituary of W S Millard: “Every visitor to the Society's room in
Apollo Street will remember the great Indian Hornbill, better known as
the "office canary" which lived in a cage behind Millard's chair in
Phipson & Co.'s office for 26 years and died in 1920. It is said
its death was caused by swallowing a piece of wire, but in the past
"William" had swallowed a lighted cigar without ill effects and I for
my part think that the loss of his old friend was the principal
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