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Tockus Hornbills


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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 mandible.

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 would-be predators.

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.

Literature cited:
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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Last updated: February 18, 2006