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Ever since Zazu graced our screens in the Lion King even the average toddler around the world is sure to recognize an African Hornbill. Whether its Grey, Yellow-Billed or Red-Billed, this is a bird we see almost daily and, as such, we can find ourselves taking it for granted. However, we should be thankful to Disney for making this bird famous, as long before it made friends with a lion called Simba it has been an important symbol of Africa and has some fascinating behaviours of its own.

Photo by Vaughan Jessnitz

In Zulu culture the Yellow-Billed Hornbill has long been recognized as the bird of optimism as it’s often seen sitting on the top of tall trees looking towards the endless African sky. Us trainee guides have certainly taken this on board and feel it’s a nice morning reminder to be hopeful about the looming exams ahead!

Photo by Amy Villis

One of the most endearing traits of the Hornbill is its nesting and breeding behaviour. Hornbills are monogamous birds and perform elaborate courtship displays to build trust between them where they will bow to each other and cluck urgently. The pair will feed together prior to mating and often stop to perform these displays throughout the day.

Photo by Amy Villis

Once the birds have found their soul mate the female will find a natural tree cavity and set about doing some home improvements. She will even sacrifice her own tail and flight feathers for the sake of some soft furnishings for her offspring. The male will seal her in with mud leaving a small hole through which he will attentively feed her whilst she cares for the eggs and chicks. She is therefore complete dependent on the male during this time. When the chicks are around half grown the female will break out and the family will remain together for a couple of weeks while the adults feed the chicks together.

Photo by Sebastiann Kroon

Another fascinating trait is their mutualistic relationship with dwarf mongooses. They will often forage together and the hornbills will benefit from the insects flushed up by their furry friends. They, in turn, will alarm for raptors which are a danger to the mongooses. Their relationship is so beneficial to both species that the hornbills will wake up the mongooses in the morning by calling down their holes. And in turn the mongooses will sometimes even delay leaving for the day until the hornbills arrive to protect them.

Photo by Kendal Hanson

A bird to admire, even when it is trying to steal your morning rusks!

Blog by Amy Villis – currently doing her placement at Greenfire Lodge