Trumpeter Hornbill (male)
Trumpeter Hornbill (male)


HornbillsAvailability in USA

There are basically three types of hornbills:  ground, Asian, and African.  A few of the Tockus species, Bycanistes species, and ground hornbills of Africa are often available in softbill aviculture, but all of the Asian hornbills are much more difficult to find.  Zoos tend to have more of the Asians, while private softbillers have more of the African species.  Not only is this due to the CITES restrictions on imports, but also the fact that the Asians generally are physically larger, requiring very large aviaries, and are much more expensive.

Although most of the Asian hornbills are listed on CITES and illegal to import, luckily most of the African hornbills are still able to be imported.  Red Billed and Von der Deckin species are the most inexpensive and frequently seen, and bred, hornbills since the  late  1990’s.

Red Bill Hornbill (male), Tockus erythrorhynchus


The  majority of hornbills are easily sexed visually.  For example, the mature Red-Billed Hornbill male has a large amount of black on the lower mandible, and the Von der Deckin male has a red and cream colored bill compared to a solid black one of the female.  Other species differ in eye color, facial skin color, the size of the casque, and plumage.

Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Bucorvus abyssinicus (also known as Northern Ground Hornbill) (male) – Photo from Sacramento Zoo, CA


Many species of hornbills, such as this Northern Ground Hornbill (above ) housed at the Sacramento Zoo, have casques. Casques are bill growth extensions starting at the base of the upper mandible, or beak.  Typically the males have larger and showier ones than the females, although both species may have them.  Casques come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are often wrinkled or folded looking.  Many species names are coined by the bird’s casques.

Feeding Hornbills

Feeding hornbills is relativity easy with some extra attention at breeding times.  Since we only have Tockus  and Bycanistes species  at this time, we feed all our hornbills the same diet.  They get a mixture of our basic softbill fruit diet (see Diet) and water-soaked softbill pellets in a 1:1 ratio.  Insects, such as mealworms, frozen crickets, and waxworms, are given at least every other day.  A dish of dry pellets is available at all times.

During breeding, there is a change in the feeding program.  Besides the regular diet, we add a large serving of livefood daily, in addition to a dish of mashed hard-boiled egg with the shell and a dish of chopped beef heart.  The birds will also eat pinkie mice, but we tend to avoid them because of the potential bacterial diseases they can carry since we do not raise our own pinkie mice.  (Other aviaries use pinkies and other rodents with great success so we are not insinuating that they are inappropriate to use.)

Hornbill Housing

Most  hornbills  are  kept  in  medium  to  large size outdoor  flights  with shelters and heat provided for the colder weather.   Hornbills can develop frostbite on  their toes and feet easily, often leading to loss of the limb if not protected from freezing temperatures.

For the smaller Tockus species, the minimum size would be 3  feet  by  6 feet by 6 feet (LxWxHt).  Our hornbills  are  kept  outside  in planted aviaries that are  completely sheltered from wind and rain in the winter.  Supplemental heating is given when below 40 degrees F.

Smaller  hornbill  species  can be kept in mixed species aviaries outside of breeding season if the flights are large.  We have kept them with plovers, thrushes, turacos, bulbuls, and mousebirds successfully.  However they can become murderous to other birds when breeding so be careful mixing them with other species.

Hornbills love to sunbathe.  They occasionally water bathe on wet leaves or in warm rains.  They do not usually use water bowls in which to bathe.  Dirt flooring is enjoyed since they spend a good deal of time on the substrate foraging and dustbathing.

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Red Bill Hornbills feeding chicks inside nestbox

Breeding Hornbills

To many,  this is the most interesting aspect of hornbills as it is quite unique.  All hornbills, but the Ground Hornbill species, breed in tree cavities in the wild.  After choosing the nest and mating, the female is walled into the cavity so that only a small slit remains open in which the male slips food.  The female lays her clutch and remains inside throughout incubation and raising of the chicks.  The male feeds her and the growing brood throughout the time period.  After several weeks and the chicks are ready to fledge, she finally breaks out to help the male feed the chicks, who break out a week or so later.

The nestbox that the  female   muds  herself  into can look messy on the outside.  Bark chips can be nailed to the outside of the box to make it easier for the hornbills to grasp as they access the entrance hole.  We fill the box 3/4ths  full with orchid bark chips and pine shavings.  The  birds  remove some and add dead leaves and pieces of bark.

The male inspects and helps build the entrance, brings her mudding material and food gifts, and entices the female with pretend mudding movements at the entrance hole although he will never go in himself.  The female typically does the mudding up using dirt, feces, and the fruit-pellet mixture.  The  “mud” is rock hard when dried.  She squeezes herself through the small opening before finally mudding up from the inside, until just a slim slit was left open.

For over two months, the male feeds the trapped female, and the chicks when they hatch, through the small vertical slit in the mudded up entrance hole.  The female will greet him noisily every time as if complaining  about  her  plight.  Hatching about a day apart, the one to three chicks can be heard begging for food as they grow.

Finally after almost 3 months, the chicks emerge.  The female breaks out about two weeks before the young do to help feed until the youngsters emerge.   The young are fully flighted and wean quickly.  The parents offer food for another week or so.

Hornbills such as this Von der Deckin Hornbill often tame easily.
Hornbills such as this female Von der Deckin Hornbill often tame easily.

Hornbills as Pets

Tockus hornbills are one of the few softbill birds that can become great household pets.  Parentraised birds can become tame but if a more cuddly pet is wanted then it is best to get a handraised one.  Von  der  Deckin Hornbills (Tockus deckeni) and Red Bill Hornbills are the most commonly available hornbills but finding handreared ones can be tough.  Handrearing hornbills is a long, difficult, and time consuming task.  The larger hornbill species can be tame pets too, but their size is usually not suitable for household pets.

Hornbills at the Davis Lund Aviaries

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Copyright 07/09  Kateri Davis