Know your hornbill

Let’s Chirp with Tim Cockcroft

FAMILY MEMBERS: The crowned hornbill, left, and the trumpeter hornbill
FAMILY MEMBERS: The crowned hornbill, left, and the trumpeter hornbill

THREE members of the hornbill family occur in our area: the crowned, trumpeter and southern ground hornbill.

This week I am going to focus on the two that are seen more frequently.

First, let’s have a look at the most common of the two, the crowned hornbill. This medium-sized bird looks quite smart with its dark brown wings and tail, slightly paler chest and cheeks, white belly and deep orange-red bill. They occur in quite a wide variety of habitats, from valley bushveld, woodland, forest edge and gardens. They are usually seen in pairs or small groups, or sometimes larger groups.

I remember seeing a flock of 20 or more crowned hornbills in Port Alfred once. They perch out in the open, on the tops of trees and dead branches. The crowned hornbill feeds on insects and small animals in the wild, but where it is settled in urban areas it visits houses where it eats cheese, bread and other items on offer, where it becomes quite friendly and tame.

The call is a variety of high pitched, squeaky “pip pip pip” sounds uttered in flight or when perched. You can visit to hear my recording.

The trumpeter hornbill is somewhat larger than the crowned hornbill, with a much larger, brownish bill. It is black and white with a white trailing edge to the wing. It is found in more forested areas and along rivers where there are wild figs and other fruit to eat. Although they occur in town in our area, they are not seen in built up areas as often as their crowned cousins.

Their presence is often given away by their loud, wailing calls, often compared to a baby crying. On take-off, the call can really get wound up, as you can hear on my recording at

The trumpeter hornbill looks most un-bird-like in flight, with rapid fluttering interspersed with quick glides, almost looking top-heavy with that huge konk of a bill. The crowned hornbill’s flight is somewhat heavier, with slower flaps and longer glides.

One thing both of these hornbills have in common is their nesting habits. They select a natural hole in a tree, where the female is sealed up inside with mud, leaving only a small gap to be fed by the male. The mud seal is broken when the chicks are ready to leave the nest.

So, with that, it’s time to wrap things up for this week. If you are reading this and visiting the area, please note that I am available to guide you on a bird-watching tour in our area. I can be reached at 072-314-0069. Until next time, happy birding!

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