Hornbills Share a Meal

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A southern ground hornbill

A southern ground hornbill

There is an enclosure on Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo where you’ll find a pair of large, carnivorous birds. Don’t worry, though! The southern ground hornbills are quite shy and not without a sensitive side, as some bird keepers began to notice earlier this summer.

A few months ago, keepers started to feed the hornbills from a different location. This new feeding location gave us a greater ability to monitor the birds’ health and activities. Initially, the birds—although large and somewhat intimidating in appearance—were too nervous about the change in routine to come and visit their keepers. But as they got used to their new feeding station, we started to see some behavior that we hadn’t seen before!

At first, the male hornbill was the only one that would come close enough to eat food tossed to him by the keeper. Instead of eating it, though, he would grab the tossed food and run back up the hill with the meat in his bill. He would shortly return without his food. He repeated this process with every piece of meat. What was he doing with his dinner? Why run up to the top of the exhibit and not just eat where the keepers tossed the food? It turned out that he was sharing the food with his shy girlfriend at the top of the exhibit!

As she got more familiar with the routine, she would come down a little closer to the food. When the food was tossed, the male would run up to grab his food, strut up to his mate (showing off his impressive hunting abilities, no doubt), and stop short. The first time I saw this, I thought that maybe he had gotten tired of always giving up his choice meat. But instead of gobbling down his dinner, he just stood still. The female then lowered her head, raised her wings, and hopped toward him. When she got into range, she darted her bill out and plucked the meat from his bill. She was “begging” for her food! She was assuming a body posture that resembles the posture of young birds begging for food from their parents.

As the feeding regimen became common, we saw even more complex developments emerge from these two. Sometimes the female didn’t feel like begging for her food, and she would rush up and try to take the food from the male’s bill. Whenever she tried this without using a begging posture, the male would pull the food out of her reach at the last instant; the more stubborn she got, the more stubborn he would get.

Now, some days the female gets her food in a matter of seconds, while on other days the two will be in standoff mode for 15 minutes or longer! If you are near the snow leopards on Big Cat Trail in the mid afternoon, keep your eye out for these two birds politely sharing their meal…or not!

Mike Grue is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.