Ground Hornbillson October 2, 2013
While on a Game Drive in Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park the other day we came across four Ground Hornbills. These really are some of my favourite birds; often called Africa’s Turkey Buzzard. They are large birds which are often seen strutting through the grass looking for insects, frogs and lizards to eat; they will also eat snakes. They peck the snake, killing it and then eat it head first. Farmers love to have them in their fields because of the amount of insects they dispose of; they seem to eat continuously.
Hornbills are quite timid in the wild and will walk away if they see or hear a vehicle. They don’t like to fly but will take to the air if they feel threatened, landing in a nearby tree.
During the day ground hornbills are silent. You can only hear them early in the morning before the sun lights up the day. Their booming call can be heard for miles across the land. Their black eyes, surrounded by scarlet skin, have the longest eyelashes of any bird.
I am sure their beautiful eyelashes are the reason for so many superstitions surrounding them. In the old days the people killed them when there was a drought. It was thought that a head of a ground hornbill when thrown into a drying-up river would poison the water. The gods would then send rain to flush out the river, thereby relieving the drought. Even further back in time, around 50AD, the Roman author, Pliny, mentions them as birds of mythology, comparing them to Pegasus, a flying horse.
Ground hornbills can live for 45 years; ones in captivity have lived to 60. In the wild they live in groups of 2-9 with only one female laying eggs but she does not lay eggs every year, just every 2-3 years. When the young birds hatch only the stronger one will survive. The whole family group will feed this youngster until it is fully fledged. Because of their slow reproductive rate, hornbill numbers can be low in some areas and are listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).
I was really happy to see this group of hornbills in our park. The environment is perfect for them and provides food and protection for their small flock. I hope they will stay and prosper, providing pleasure to many of our visitors to this special part of Zambia.