At first sight it appears to be most ungainly. But look at it carefully and it becomes apparent that it is one of the most majestic and beautiful birds that one can ever set eyes upon. The sight of it with its wings spread out, flying in the sky is an image indelibly etched in one’s memory.
I can never forget my first sighting of the Great Indian Hornbill. We were birding at Topslip and I was very keen to have a glimpse of this iconic bird. With much hesitation, we dropped in to visit the range forest officer at his home. He was most helpful and arranged for a forest trekker to accompany us the next day. We set off early in the morning and ventured into the hallowed precincts of the Karian Shola.
The forest trekker shepherded us deep inside the forest. After a while, he signaled us to sit on the forest floor near a huge tall tree. We could see a small hole right on top of the tree. The trekker whispered that the female was inside that hollow. As he was mentioning it, we saw a brief flash of its yellow bill at the hole.
When the female hornbill is ready to lay the eggs, she confines herself inside the hollow and seals it over with her droppings and some mud, leaving only a small slit open. It remains inside for about four to six weeks. Since the space inside the nest is quite limited, it sheds all its feathers, making a cushion for the young ones in the process. She is a considerate and fastidious home maker! In order to keep the nest clean she turns around, positioning her back towards the slit and shoots the droppings out! This reduces the chances of disease and also diminishes the likelihood of predators locating the nest by the smell of its excrement. During their time in the nest, the female and the chicks are entirely dependent on the food brought by the male. If something happens to him unfortunately they often perish.
We crouched down in the thick undergrowth of the forest for several minutes, awaiting the arrival of His Majesty.Suddenly there was a big whooshing sound much like a helicopter and there it was, this huge colorful bird with its amazing casque! It landed at the opening in the tree. It was incredible to see the big bird balancing itself delicately on the sides of the tree. He opened his beak and, with an awkward stretch of his neck, inserted his beak inside the opening. After a few minutes, it took off with an impressive swish.
It was an incredible experience to see this big bird bestowing its attention on his partner with such attention and care….a source of inspiration to many a man!
The trekker informed us that the male flies far and wide to gather food and makes repeated sorties, sometimes over a dozen in a day to feed the female. During these sorties they also disperse seeds through droppings or regurgitation and play a crucial role in maintaining the eco system in the forests. It is no surprise then that they are called ‘feathered foresters’.
I have been on a hornbill trail for a while, looking for it every time we go birding! There are nine species of hornbills in India - Great Hornbill, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill, Narcondam Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Oriental Pied Hornbill, White-throated Brown Hornbill, Malabar Grey Hornbill and the Indian Grey Hornbill. I have been lucky enough to have spotted five of them by now. Rufous-necked, Wreathed, Narcondam and White-throated Brown Hornbills are on my bucket list!
Unfortunately hornbills are highly threatened and endangered today due to human impacts. Illegal and unregulated logging of large trees, removal of trees with cavities as part of forest management, poaching, especially of nests, and the loss of native trees particularly large, old Ficus trees have played a huge role in impacting their population.
Hornbills also figure prominently in the folklore especially in the north-eastern region of the country, as this tale illustrates…
THE BOY WHO BECAME A HORNBILL
Once there was a boy whose parents had died, and he lived in the house of some relatives, but the man and his wife constantly ill-treated him. When he went with the other young people to work in the fields the woman used to give him food to take with him; but she mixed rats’ dung with the rice.
Every day the young men and girls used to gather in the field and eat together, but the boy was ashamed to let them see what his food was like, and always ate by himself, at a distance. One day he went to wash his hands and mouth before eating, and two of the girls, both of whom were fond of him, said to each other; “Why does he never eat with us? Let us go and look and see what food he has.” They went very quietly and unpacked his parcel of food, and found the rice all filthy and mixed with rats’ dung.
“Oh!” they said. “So that is why he would not eat with us! Let us throw it away.” They threw it away, and each contributed a little from her own food.
When the boy came back and opened his food he found good rice instead of what had been there before, and he said to the others: “Who does this belong to? It isn’t mine. Mine is not like this.” They all said: “It must be yours. Look, every one of us has his own.” Still he insisted that it was not his, and they that it must be, but he refused to eat or drink any of it.
For several days this happened, One day he said to the girl he liked the best: “Which do you love most, me or your clothes?” She answered: “I love you the best.”
“Then will you give me your skirt?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, and gave it him. “And will you give me your breast-cloth?” “Yes,” said the girl, and she took off her black breast-cloth and gave it him, and he put the two cloths on.
“How do I look?” he said.
“Oh, very fine,” said the girl.
“Will you give me the neck of your zu-gourd?” he said.
“Yes,” she said, and broke it off and gave it to him. He put it to his mouth like a beak, and said: “Now I’ll get up on the field house and see how I look from there.” When he had scrambled up on the roof he called to her: “How do I look now?”
“Oh, very fine indeed,” she said.
“Very well,” said the boy. “If it looks all right from here, then I’ll go up higher into a tree.” He climbed up into a tree and sat there and became a hornbill, and cried out harshly, as hornbills do. When the girl saw what had happened she began to weep and cried out: “You look very handsome, but come down and let us go to the village. Come down, and let us go!” But he was a hornbill, and was ready to fly away.
“After a long while I will return,” he said to her. “When you hear the sound of hornbills’ wings overhead, come out of your house and sit outside; I shall be the last bird in the flight, and I will let fall the very best of my tail-feathers for you.”
So he flew away, and the girl went weeping back to the village.
A long time later, after the girl had married, she heard the sound of hornbills’ wings overhead, and she left the house and sat outside. As she looked up at the last hornbill in the flight, the bird let fall the finest of its tail-feathers, and it floated down and landed between the girl’s breasts. The girl kept the feather and treasured it, and she and her husband had great good fortune and had splendid crops and became rich.
And who can forget Zazu, the prim and proper hornbill with a strong sense of personal identity and advisor to King Mufasa in the movie Lion King?!
Saffron is this season's color
Seen in all the herds
Moving down the rank and file
To near the bottom rung
Quite frankly in the dung
This hornbill must be watching the goings on now with bemusement!!
A few glimpse of hornbills through my lens: goo.gl/photos/J82MT2pJtptTqQYy6