Hornbill Family Feeding

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Trumpeter hornbills are native to Africa.

Trumpeter hornbills are native to Africa.

I took video (see below) of the San Diego Zoo’s trumpeter hornbill Bycanistes bucinator family catching mega-worms, the larval phase of a species of beetle. These omnivorous birds enjoy eating: apples, grapes, papaya, figs, yams, mealworms, crickets, and waxworms. But their favorite food items are the mega-worms I’m tossing in the video.

The bird with the largest beak nearest to the camera at the beginning of the video is Dad. The other birds in the video are his two daughters and one son. Mom is in the exhibit, but she is off camera enjoying a rare moment of peace from the barrage of attention her mate and youngsters constantly crave.

What I really like about this family is just how well they get along. The two females in the video hatched last year, and they have helped to raise their younger brother, who hatched this year! This behavior is not unusual for this species, as they are cooperative breeders, meaning the young from one clutch help their parents raise the next clutch. They share food so well that toward the end of the clip, one of the females actually takes the mega-worm out of the Dad’s beak. He doesn’t scold or chase after her but instead waits patiently for the next bug to be tossed (notice that I do make sure to toss him the next one).

Did you notice the way the hornbills chewed their food before swallowing? Check out the video again to see the way the birds deftly manipulate the bug before they swallow it. Mega-worms have an exoskeleton that can be harder to digest than most food items. To help ease the process, the birds “chew” their food before swallowing.

If you want to say hi to Mom, Dad, and the kids, you can check them out near the meerkat exhibit in Africa Rocks.

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Pelican Keeper Chat.