What is the southern ground hornbill?
About the size of a turkey, the southern ground hornbill is the largest species of hornbill on Earth. It can fly up to 18 miles an hour and has an impressive wingspan that reaches about four feet across. The bird is recognizable by its jet-black feathers, yellow eyes, and bright red throat. The fleshy part of the bird’s throat, called a wattle, identifies its sex: The throat of a male hornbill is completely red, whereas a female sports a patch of violet blue. Male hornbills can inflate their wattles during mating season to attract females. This vocal bird also uses its wattle to make booming calls that are so loud, they’re often mistaken for a lion’s roar.
Habitat and diet
The southern ground hornbill lives throughout the southern part of Africa. The bird makes its home in grasslands and woodlands, as well as open savannas as long as there are nearby trees to roost in and build nests for its young.
The southern ground hornbill spends most of its time slowly walking around with a group in search of food. Although its diet sometimes includes fruits and seeds, this hornbill is more likely to eat insects, toads, lizards, snakes, and tortoises. It also preys on mammals, such as hares, rats, squirrels, and even small monkeys. The bird uses its long, curved bill to slice its food and to rub slimy frogs and snails on the ground before eating them.
Behavior and reproduction
Southern ground hornbills live in groups that usually range from two to nine members. Only the dominant male and female of the group breed, and most pairs remain monogamous throughout their lives. The other group members are primarily male birds that help defend the group’s territory and care for the chicks. Although female birds lay one to three eggs at a time, only one typically survives.
Threats to survival
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the southern ground hornbill as vulnerable to extinction, though its global population is difficult to quantify. Pollution, logging, and agricultural expansion often result in the destruction of nesting habitats. Flooding and severe weather due to climate change has wreaked further damage, as has widespread use of pesticides by farmers in hornbill habitat. Researchers estimate that the bird’s original range in South Africa has shrunk by two-thirds over the past century, and by a fifth in the past 15 years alone.
But habitat destruction isn’t the only danger to southern ground hornbills. Many birds are deliberately poisoned because of their reputation for breaking windows when attacking their reflection. Humans also hunt southern ground hornbills for use in rituals and traditional medicine. During times of civil unrest, birds are killed when they inadvertently step on landmines, often while approaching an insect nest for food. These threats are compounded by the fact that southern ground hornbills are among the species of birds with the lowest reproduction rates.
Attempts to recover southern ground hornbill populations include programs for raising and reintroducing captive-bred birds into the wild and creating public awareness campaigns. Much of this work is being carried out in South Africa through efforts like the Mabula Ground-Hornbill Project. National Geographic grantee Yvette Ehlers Smith has also led research projects investigating how to better protect these birds. Research has shown that intervention programs aimed at changing negative beliefs about hornbills are also effective, as is properly covering windows to prevent the birds from seeing their reflections and crashing into the glass.