Conservation of any endangered species must begin with stringent efforts to protect its natural habitat by the enforcement of rigid legislation against human encroachment into parks and other game sanctuaries. Dian Fossey
Over the last 11 years Geran and I have been vigilant visitors to the Kruger National Park. We love the park, and by taking our children there frequently, we have also fostered a love for the Park, in them. We often joke that our little family must look like fist time visitor tourists, cameras jutting out of the cars windows, clicking away furiously. But it never gets old. Seeing an animal in it’s natural environment, without fences, is magical and very rewarding indeed. We are blessed to be able to offer this experience to our students groups, and we have not EVER had anyone come back from Kruger without a HUGE smile on their face and a new love for the African bush.
I am also an avid birder. And the near extinction of a species, like the ground hornbill, is a huge worry. However, I am very happy to report that their status in no longer “endangered”, they are now marked as “vulnerable”, and over the last 5 years we, speaking from personal experience, we have seen a healthy increase in the numbers of sightings of these fascinating birds in Kruger. Please remember that I am speaking from personal experiences only, and do NOT present any statistical information nor do I represent any research foundations. I have gathered my bird fact information from numerous sources, from both printed articles, internet publications and bird books galore. I speak from the heart, from personal experiences and what I have seen with my own little eyes.
When I see Ground Hornbills perched in a tree, I always recall the conversation from “Jungle Book”, those vultures chatting away asking, “What you wanna do?”, and the reply, “I dunno, what you wanna do?”. They are comical to observe, but far from incapable, as one would imagine by just looking at them. Southern Ground-Hornbill are omnivorous, and the group often spends most of their time everyday walking long distances, foraging. They have dexterous bills that enable them to dig for food. And woe betide small animals when a party of ground hornbills is out foraging! These omnivores snap up anything: insects, lizards, rodents, tortoises, small birds and snakes! Not even the highly venomous puff adder is safe!!! They usually occur in savannah, grassland and woodland habitats, and are not at all keen on semi-desert or forrest habitats. You will usually hear their loud and strange, (can almost be mistaken for a distant lion call), calls early in the mornings or late afternoons. It is an “oooomph oooomph” sound unique to this bird.
The large birds are the biggest of the hornbill species, they weigh in at between 3 and 4kg! Although they are terrestrial birds, they can and do fly! On the ground, you will primarily see their black plumage, but when in flight, you will notice their striking white primary feathers. The adults boast red faces and throats, making them pretty easy to spot in the bush, especially in winter when the brush and foliage is rather dull and brown. The juveniles however have able grey/cream facial skin, with grey sides on the bills and “dirty brown” plumage. The adults develop their plumage over a period of roughly 3 years. The facial skin first tunes pink, then orange and finally becomes a striking red.
These awesome birds are totally monogamous. They live in family groups, and they often have “nanny birds” at the nests. The Southern Ground Hornbill is the only hornbill that does NOT seal the female into the nest during their breeding season. They breed in holes in trees or amongst rocks and usually lay between 2 to 3 eggs. The eggs are laid 3 to 5 days apart, so the older sibling will usually outcompete the younger sibling for food, and as a result only one of the chicks is raised after the first couple of weeks, after hatching. The chicks are altricial, which means they are born undeveloped and need caring for by the parents.
These harmless birds SHOULD be long lived, but due to loss of habitat and hunting for traditional medicines, their numbers have been seriously compromised. They also have a a special hatred for windows for some unknown reason! I have actually seen one attack a car’s side windows in Kruger. Luckily the driver only shrugged and laughed, I think he too was amazed at the bird’s irritation with the mirror. I do hope you also get to see them in Kruger National Park when you visit us here in South Africa. It would be so terribly sad if future generations only get to read about The Ground Hornbill, as is the case with the Dodo and so many other species.0