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The red-billed hornbill is distinguished from its cousins by a thin red bill and pale head, as well as by the absence of a casque on top of its bill. The crown and nape are dark gray, the neck and face are white, the back is sooty brown with a white stripe down center, the under parts are white, the primaries are black with conspicuous white spots, and the tail is dark brown to black with white edges. The male and female look similar, but the female has a smaller bill.
One of the smaller hornbills, the red-billed is 19-24 inches long and weighs less than 1 pound.
Distribution and Habitat
The red-billed hornbill is found from Senegal right across Africa to Ethiopia and Somalia and south to Kenya and Tanzania, as well as in South Africa, Botswana, Angola and Mozambique. It inhabits open savanna, woodland and thorn scrub.
Like all other hornbills, the red-billed is an omnivore, feeding on fruit, insects, small animals, birds' eggs and nestlings, and even dead rodents. Virtually all of its food is obtained on the ground while running about. They are expert diggers for which their bills are well-adapted.
Breeding takes place between October and January. Courtship displays include "shoulder-shrugging" and "body-swaying." During displays, they utter clucking calls with bowed head and slightly opened wings. Once formed breeding pairs are monogamous.
After mating, the female lays three to six eggs in a tree cavity that she has sealed off with a cementlike substance made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp; a narrow opening allows the male to transfer food to her, and later to her and the chicks as they remain sealed inside. Incubation takes 23 to 25 days, during which time the female also molts. When the chicks are abour 20 days old, the female breaks out and rebuilds the wall to expand the nesting area, after which the chicks reseal the entrance. The chicks will remain in the nest for another month and a half, with both parents providing food for them. Chicks fly well on emerging from the nest and never return to it, although they may remain with their parents for another six months.
Sexual maturity is reached between 1 and 3 years, depending on size, and the red-billed hornbill can live for 15 years in the wild.
Red-billed hornbills are usually found in pairs or small family parties, but during the dry season may congregate in flocks of several hundred at feeding areas such as water holes. They defend territories against their own species, but not against other hornbill species. They move early in the morning, but return to their regular roosts (on trees, large branches or close to the trunk) in their territories at night.
Red-billed hornbills run rather than hop. They fly with a flap-and-glide flight on relatively short wings. The long tail may be used as a brace while hanging on to a vertical tree trunk near a nest hole.
Red-billed hornbills will forage alongside mongooses, eating the same things, and sometimes competing with the mongooses, although they usually do not steal food from them. The mongooses benefit from the warning calls that the hornbills give when a raptor is near. Thus, the mongooses can forage in relative peace, and tend to post fewer guards when the hornbills are around. The birds even give warning calls for sightings of animals that are predators of the mongooses but not the hornbills themselves.
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This page was last updated on September 25, 2017.