Philippines, India, Africa, China, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia


Forests, scrubland, and savanna

I feel pretty

With long eyelashes, dark eyes, and an almost comically large, curved bill, hornbills have many admirers (the eyelashes are modified feathers!). These birds range from the size of a pigeon to large birds with a 6-foot (1.8 meters) wingspan. You can easily pick out a hornbill from other birds by a special body part atop their bill called a casque.

Hornbills have a long tail, broad wings, and white and black, brown, or gray feathers. This contrasts with the brightly colored neck, face, bill, and casque in many species. Females and males often have different colored faces and eyes. Their closest relatives are kingfishers, rollers, and bee-eaters.

A typical day

Found in Africa and Southeast Asia, hornbills live in forests, rainforests, or savannas, depending on species. But no matter where they live, hornbills are diurnal, often rising with the sun to preen and call to their neighbors before heading off for a meal. Some species go off to forage in pairs or small groups while other species gather in flocks that may number in the hundreds. In between meals, the birds preen themselves and each other and do a bit of sunbathing. Bill care is important, too, and the birds rub their bill and casque frequently across a branch or bark to keep them clean. When the day is done, they return to their home tree to roost.

Some hornbill species apply makeup! Their bill is stained red-yellow and orange by preening oil from a gland at the base of their tail.
Southern ground hornbill booms are so loud they are sometimes mistaken for the roaring of lions.
Often the first sign of an approaching hornbill is the rhythmic chuffing sound made by their wings as they fly through the air, which can be heard at long range.
The weight of a hornbill's casque and bill are so heavy that their first two neck vertebrae are fused to support the weight.

The San Diego Zoo has a long history with Abyssinian ground hornbills. Our first, a four-year-old male, arrived at the Zoo in 1951. Named Charlie, he was eventually paired with a female that arrived in 1961, but they did not produce any offspring. When the female died in 1971, Charlie was sent to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and paired with a new female, Susie, in 1972. In 1973, they successfully produced the first ground hornbill hatchling outside of Africa. This was such an outstanding achievement that it resulted in the 1974 Edward H. Bean Award, given to the Safari Park by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums “in recognition for the most notable birth." By 1995, Charlie and Susie had produced 43 chicks, many of which were then transferred to other zoos throughout North America.

Today, San Diego Zoo Global has the most comprehensive collection of hornbills in the US at nearly 30 species between the Zoo and the Safari Park. We have hatched more than 520 hornbill chicks, which is among the highest number of hornbill hatchings in the world.

In addition, our Safari Park has a southern ground hornbill, Grover, who meets guests during animal encounters, and two eastern yellow-billed hornbills, Trouble and Bruiser, who are part of the Park’s Frequent Flyers bird show. Grover is described by his trainers as the cast’s biggest chatterbox and has a variety of show-stopping behaviors in his repertoire. Trouble gets to interact with a few lucky audience members during the show.

The Zoo has a southern ground hornbill named Delilah who serves as an animal ambassador, meeting Zoo guests up close and making television appearances. She can be seen on exhibit in Urban Jungle.

Despite their quirky and comical nature, hornbills are in trouble. Habitat destruction and hunting are the biggest threats to hornbills, and it is believed that there are only 120 pairs of Visayan wrinkled hornbills Aceros waldeni and fewer than 20 pairs of Sulu hornbills Anthracoceros montari left in the world. The Sulu hornbill's tiny population is limited to one island in the Philippines (Tawitawi), and military activity there makes conservation difficult. Other threats for hornbills include introduced species such as feral goats, which are preventing forest regeneration by eating new growth.

San Diego Zoo Global is actively involved in conservation programs for hornbills. One is a feather exchange program: participating zoos gather molted tail feathers from great and rhinoceros hornbills in their collections and ship the feathers to indigenous people in southeast Asia for use in ceremonial costumes. Lost collections of tribal feathers can also be replaced. The primary aim is to reduce hunting hornbills for this commodity and reduce depletion of their populations. In South Africa, we are working with the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project where we have helped with training staff in incubation and chick-rearing techniques, based on our experience with California condors. We have also provided tracking and photography equipment, as well as hand puppets to raise chicks.

Another conservation effort is the Hornbill Adopt-A-Nest program, developed by the Hornbill Research Foundation and being implemented in Thailand. This project helps employ local people, who previously earned money by poaching and selling hornbill chicks stolen from nests, as nest guardians, protecting hornbill nests from illegal logging and collecting research data on the birds. This assists conservation efforts and also provides income and education in the local areas. You can adopt a hornbill nest, too! Each year you receive a report on the nesting activity from the pair of hornbills you’ve adopted.

Hornbills are symbols of luck, purity, and fidelity in many cultures, and this may help the hornbill's human neighbors join in the fight to conserve these fabulous birds. Another way you can help us bring hornbills back from the brink is by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.