Bucorvus leadbeateri

KINGDOM: Animalia (Animals)

PHYLUM: Chordata (Possessing a notochord)

CLASS: Aves (Birds)

ORDER: Ciconiiformes (Stork family)

FAMILY: Bucorvidae (Ground Hornbills)

SUB-FAMILY: Bucorvinae (Ground Hornbills)

GENUS: Bucorvus (African Ground Hornbills)

SPECIES: Bucorvus leadbeateri (Southern Ground Hornbill)

Distribution

Southern Ground Hornbills are found in the southern and eastern parts of Africa. They occupy the land from southern Kenya and Burundi, through Angola and Namibia to South Africa.

The southern ground-hornbill has a striking red facial and throat skin that contrasts with its black plumage. Its bill is long, thick and downward-curving, with a small casque on the top. The eyes of this species are pale yellow, and its legs are black and quite robust. When it does fly, the southern ground-hornbill reveals striking white primary feathers on its wings. The female differs from the male in that there is a violet patch on the throat, rather than just pure red colouration. Juveniles are duller and browner than the adults, with brown eyes and a smaller bill, and individuals under two years of age have yellowish facial skin. As the bird ages, the facial skin becomes more mottled with red and blue spots, before finally becoming entirely red at about four years old.

This bird tends to occupy woodlands, scrub and savannahs.

The diet of the southern ground hornbill consists mainly of invertebrates that are readily found on the ground (including spiders), as well as lizards, snakes and amphibians. The bird has also been observed eating larger prey, such as hares and tortoises. Other food items that are less common include carrion, fruit and seeds.

Southern ground hornbills are very territorial, with the entire family group of up to 10 individuals protecting a territory which can be many square kilometres. They are monogamous, pairing for the approximately 50 years of their lives unless their mate dies.

These hornbills have one of the slowest reproductive rates in the bird kingdom, producing only one chick approximately every 9 years. They are co-operative breeders, with just one dominant breeding pair in a social group, and the rest of the birds being helpers.

Ground hornbills are the only birds in the hornbill family which do not seal the entrances of their nests when eggs are laid. The nests, which are returned to every year, are created in crevices such as large holes in tree trunks, and are generally, situated a few metres off the ground. One to three eggs are laid at the beginning of the wet season but only one nestling is ever fledged. The eggs are pure white in colour but very rough in texture. They have a 40 to 45-day incubation period and an 85-day fledging period. Chicks can be independent of parents and helpers at between one and two years old depending on climatic conditions.

They are non-migratory birds. They remain in their defined territory throughout the year. Helper birds in the flock help to defend their territory. Hornbills use vocal means to define their territory, setting up chorus calls that can be heard by other birds up to 2 km away. The home range of southern ground hornbills is very large, ranging from 50 to 100 or more km.

Although 2 eggs are laid in early summer, the chicks hatch between 3-14 days apart. Only one chick generally survives, with the other starving to death. For the first month of incubating her eggs, the female is fed by both her mate and the helpers. After about 4 weeks she begins to leave the nest. Juveniles are dependent on their parents for up to one year and male offspring will stay with them for several years before leaving the social group, if at all. Female offspring are chased away and disperse. In captivity, a maximum lifespan of 70 years is recorded and it is generally believed that the life expectancy of a bird that survives long enough to fledge is as high as 50 years or more.

Southern ground-hornbills are preyed on by leopards and crocodiles. A major threat to the Southern ground hornbill is habitat loss. It is estimated that 20% of their habitat has been lost in the last 15 years alone. This is exacerbated by the slow reproductive rate and maturation, longevity and social structure of the species.

Did you know?

  • They are a flagship species for the savannah biome
  • The Southern Ground Hornbill is the largest hornbill in the world, and is also known as the Ground Hornbill and the African Ground Hornbill
  • The juveniles have a grey face, the adults’ face is red
  • The adults can be sexed by the colour of the throat, blue in females and red in males

DID YOU KNOW?

Weavers

Weavers build nests over ponds using blades of grass. The male builds the nest, then shows off by making noise and hanging upside down from the nest. If his display succeeds, a female will inspect the nest and occupy it