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Written by Robert Petrie
(Kansas City, MO.)
Originally published in The NFSS
Bulletin, Vol. 13 No. 3. May – June 1996
What’s a Tockus hornbill? First let’s talk
about what is a hornbill. Hornbills are a family of birds, Bucerotidae,
in the order Coraciiformes. Their closest relatives are King-fishers,
Bee-eaters, Rollers, and Hoopoes. Tockus is a Genus of several hornbill
species. The Tockus hornbills are the largest genus of hornbills.
Grzimek (1973) states that there are 13 different species in the Genus
Tockus. Kemp (from Fry, C.H. et al 1988) lists 16 different species,
fourteen of them from Africa and the other two in Asia.
Having had the privilege to work with several different species of
Hornbills, they have become one of my favourite groups of birds. They
are small to medium sized birds, that is by comparison with other
Hornbills and not with Finches! The smallest, the Dwarf Red-billed
Hornbill, is about the size of a cockatiel. The largest of the Genus is
the Monteiro’s Hornbill, which is the same size as a Rosella.
Hornbills are the ecological equivalent of the Toucans and Toucanettes.
The Toucan family is found in South America, where as the Hornbill clan
is from Africa and Asia. Both, as a generalization, are long beaked
frugivorous birds, semi colourful and restricted to the tropics. The
Hornbills also possess something called a casque. In the Tockus
hornbills, this is merely a ridge of some sort on top of the upper
A truly unique behaviour of hornbills, all hornbills except the two
species of Ground Hornbills, is that the female becomes sealed in the
nest chamber while incubating and rearing of the young. A pair of
hornbills will choose a suitable hollow in a tree for nesting. The
birds will then seal up the entrance to a tiny vertical slit, with the
female inside. The opening is only big enough for the beaks of the
birds to fit through. The Tockus hornbills use primarily moist soil to
“mud-up” the entrance.
During incubation and rearing of the chicks, the female hornbill will
receive all her food from the male. When it is time to leave the nest
the female will chisel her way out through the mudded-up portion. This
behaviour is found only in the Hornbills. It is a means of avoiding
This amazing nesting behaviour has made Hornbills highly desirable
avicultural subjects, but it is not the reason I am so intrigued by
them. It is their personalities. The mentality of the Hornbills I have
worked with is similar to Toucans and parrots of equal size. They
appear highly emotional and intelligent.
The Tockus Hornbills are the smallest of the Hornbills. They comprise
14 of the 45 or so species found in Africa. They are the most
omnivorous Hornbills, making their diet much easier to satisfy. The
Tockus Genus is the most appropriate Hornbills for aviculturists to
begin with because of their size and diet. This Genus has also proven
to be much more reliable breeders than the other Hornbills.
Four of the 14 African species inhabit the rainforest of Africa, the
rest exist in the savannas, woodlands and arid regions of sub Sahara
Africa. In the wild these birds eat insects, small birds, mammals,
reptiles, and fruit. So their diet should consist of chopped fruit and
vegetables, some type of softbill pellets, lots of insects, and
possibly some type of meat. I could find no reference to the Tockus
Hornbills being susceptible to Iron Storage Disease, a disease that
other Hornbills and softbills are commonly affected by. So meat has not
been a problem in their diet.
Because of their ability to prey on small birds, these Hornbills are
not recommended to be housed with finches or of birds that size. They
are, however, suitable to be housed with birds of equal size. They will
most likely be the dominant birds in the aviary, but typically do not
bully other birds.
It is highly entertaining to observe the behaviour of a pair of Tockus
Hornbills in a large mixed aviary. The males are very attentive and
loyal to their mates. He will often “strut his stuff” in a clearing
high in the aviary for all to see. He proudly offers his mate any prize
catch he makes. The Red-billed Hornbill I worked with was the best
insect hunting animal I ever did see. He would use that long bill to
probe deep into crevices to find insects. When they fly it is flap and
glide. In a large enough aviary it is a pleasure to watch these
hornbills glide above you with their long bills and their wings
stretched out, looking like some type of airplane bomber.
Grizimek, Bernard. Grizimek’s Animal Life Ecyclopedia. Van Nostrand
Reinhold Co.. New York, NY.
Fry, C.H., Keith, S., & Urban,, E.K.
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