Rhinoceros Hornbills: A Fairy Tale

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A male rhinoceros hornbill

The rhinoceros hornbill Buceros rhinocerosfamily located in the large aviary across from Big Cat Trail at the San Diego Zoo has a story fit for a fairy tale. Over the past year, the relationship “status” for both male and female went from “single” to “in a relationship.” Not only that, but they have become the proud parents of a sweet, healthy, and demanding baby hornbill! There are many amazing bird stories here at the Zoo, but almost none of them compare to the bonding, mating, nesting behavior, incubation, and chick rearing that these two rhinoceros hornbills have experienced in the last year.

I should start at the beginning of their story: In July 2009, the Zoo acquired a male rhino hornbill with the hopes that our lone resident female would bond with him. This is not necessarily as easy as it sounds—hornbills are known to be very picky about choosing their partners. Just because their keepers think that a pairing looks good on paper doesn’t mean that they agree with our choices! Needless to say, it was important to take the introductions slowly.
At first we didn’t even allow them to see each other. Our female had been single for a while, and we wanted to see what she thought of another hornbill being in her zoo. Our female must have been quite surprised the first day she started her usual morning honks and was actually answered! She called out, and the male rhino hornbill answered her from his enclosure across the canyon! They kept their long distance relationship alive by “talking” every day. Sometimes he started the loud chat sessions while other times it was she who initiated them.

The next step was to decrease the distance between the two. Late November 2009, the female was moved into a holding pen next to the male. Though they were in separate enclosures, and there was wire in between the birds, keepers were on guard to break up any aggression. Our concerns were never put to the test, as the two hornbills seemed to like each other at first sight. They would bring food from their individual food pans to the two perches nearest each other and would display their food before swallowing it. It was almost as if they decided to make the most of being next to one another and were determined to enjoy eating their meals together.

Check back soon for the second chapter of this tale!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Secretary Bird: Not Your Average Raptor.