BALTIMORE, Md. (WHTM) — From the “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” files, here’s some video of a visit to the Baltimore Zoo.
Our feathered friend here is a Northern ground hornbill, Bucorvus abyssinicus, also known as an Abyssinian ground hornbill. He’s one of several at the zoo; they reside at the “African Journey” exhibit. (The red spot on his neck tells us he’s a male. Females only have blue markings.)
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In Africa they live in the area known as the African Savannah, a region north of the equator and south of the Sahara Desert. They’re about the size of full-grown wild turkeys. As the “ground” part of their name suggests, they don’t fly much, though they can if they have to.
Northern ground hornbills spend their days wandering the savannah, looking for food. They’re primarily carnivores, and will chow down on just about anything, including tortoises, snakes, lizards, birds, mammals, spiders, and insects. They will also eat fruit, seeds, and nuts. In a pinch, they can carry on with carrion.
They usually travel in mated pairs or in groups of three or four after the chicks leave the nest.
The structure on the top of the bill is called a casque. Most of the 50+ species of hornbills have casques, which serve as a visual cue to gender, maturity, or social status. Or, maybe it’s a beak reinforcement, resonance chamber, food gathering aid, or thermoregulator. Or, maybe it’s all of the above, none of the above, or it just depends on the species. Lots of room for discussion here…
You’ll notice Mr. Hornbill tilts his head back repeatedly in the video. I noticed him doing this, and tilted my head back in response. This turned into a brief head-tilting conversation. Later I went on the Baltimore Zoo website, and found this:
“When threatened, Northern ground hornbills will raise their heads and expose their throats in a threat posture.”
I may have been picking a fight without knowing it. Sorry about that, bird.
And oh, yes, there is a Southern ground hornbill as well. They live, not surprisingly, in the southern part of Africa, and are bigger than Northern ground hornbills. The two species are the only “ground” hornbills in the world, and both are larger than all the other hornbill species.