The southern ground hornbill is one of two ground hornbill species found in Africa and the only ground hornbill to be found in the Kruger National Park.
This bird is also the largest of the hornbill species found in the world, at times weighing in excess of 6kg, with some birds measuring up to 130cm.
Its large, striking appearance with a contrasting black body and white primary feathers along with its bright red gular pouch make it an unmistakable bird. Attention is always drawn to these birds as they meticulously scour the bush in search of any unsuspecting prey.
Although southern ground hornbills can be found outside of Kruger Park, a loss of suitable habitat, especially the required nesting conditions, amongst other factors, ensure that protected areas remain the best place to see these magnificent birds.
Southern ground hornbills are cooperative breeders and can usually be found in family groups that consist of a dominant breeding pair, with other male members being referred to as the ‘helpers’. They are territorial and all males will assist in defending their territory. Females may move between groups and are, at times, found singly.
Females typically search for a large cavity in a tree which can be used as a nesting site, but will also look for cavities in rock faces or suitable holes in the walls of embankments. Dongas may also be used. Once ready, the dominant female will then lay one to two eggs and sometimes, but rarely, three. Eggs are laid three to 14 days apart.
During incubation the female is fed by the male and the helpers. They are the only hornbill species to not seal up the female inside the nest and, unlike other hornbill species, do not undergo an extensive moult while in the nest. Once the eggs hatch the older of the two chicks dominates the younger by taking in more food and growing stronger faster, eventually resulting in the second chick dying of starvation.
However, this is not the same as cainism which is found in birds of prey, where the older chick kills the younger chick. Breeding success is therefore slow, with only one chick being added to a family group. They also don’t breed every year and, on average, one young is added to a family group every nine years.
Young birds will leave their nest after about three months and will join the rest of the family group as they forage for food. The next time you’re on a Kruger safari, have a look and see if you can determine the age of a young hornbill, should you spot one. Young birds can be identified by being smaller and having pale to yellow facial skin and a gular pouch by the first year, then flecked red by two years, orange by three years and only becoming fully red by four to six years.
They are often heard calling and begging for food. Adult females look very similar to the males, but their red throat also shows a purple/blue patch directly beneath the throat.
As their name suggests, southern ground hornbills spend most of their time on the ground (usually about 70%), only typically flying to escape predators, or during early mornings to perch in trees which may be used for calling. Their bare legs and short stumpy toes are ideally-suited for spending a lot of time on the ground.
Often, on a Kruger Park safari, both males and females can be heard calling for extended periods with low booming notes that may be heard over a 3km radius.
The southern ground hornbill has five different calls. They have a sharp, fast grunt that is usually used when the birds are playing, fighting or in distress and a begging call that is usually used by juvenile birds when they beg for food. Females also use the begging call during courtship feeding. They have an alarm call that is used to alert the group when there’s a predator present. And lastly, they have a four-note booming call, which is used as a territorial and long-range contact call.
When foraging starts, a family group will spread out, but stay within eyesight of each other. They move slowly through the bush turning over smaller stones, sticks and branches looking for food. At times, a prey item may dash into cover and other family members will then be called to assist in extracting the prey. southern ground hornbills feed on a variety of prey from insects, lizards, snails, snakes, frogs, tortoises, small unsuspecting birds and nestlings, as well as mammals such a mongoose, squirrels and even hares.
During seasons where Red-billed Queleas (Quelea quelea) are abundant, southern ground hornbills may be found plucking nestlings direct from their nest. They are kleptoparasitic and will look to steal prey from other birds of prey, where possible. At the same time, they may be victims of this by birds of prey that see them with an easy meal. Because of their foraging habits, other insectivorous species such a bee-eaters, goshawks and drongos may be seen alongside southern ground hornbills looking for insects in the grass.
Similarly, southern ground hornbills may feed alongside chacma baboons where a larger area is covered and ‘disturbed’, while both hornbills and baboons go in search of food.
This hornbill is an apex predator with very few natural predators. A decline in numbers is usually due to its slow breeding rate, and where it occurs outside of protected areas, poisoning, persecution and electrocution, which all add to the loss in numbers.
In terms of cultural interest, this species may be regarded as a bringer of good luck and protection against evil spirits, witchcraft, lightning and a sign that rain is on the way. In some areas, it is seen as a bearer of bad luck, where if a bird is found perched on top of a roof, the belief is that there will be a death in the family.
The species is currently listed as globally ‘Vulnerable’ but was uplisted to ‘Endangered’ in 2014 in South Africa, and it’s no wonder that this bird is one of the most coveted on a drive through the Kruger.
Various protection groups are working to reverse the decline by reintroducing the ‘doomed’ second chicks into areas where the species has become locally extinct. Where nests are located, the younger bird will be removed from the nest, hand-reared and introduced back into a wild population. Further efforts have been made to mitigate threats, by undertaking an extensive education and awareness campaign in areas where the birds still occur, and providing artificial nests for wild groups.
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