Colours of Wildlife: Northern Ground Hornbill

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Northern Ground Hornbill

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Northern Ground Hornbill by Willem

I have already written a long entry about the Southern Ground Hornbill, so for completeness's sake I'm also now showing and telling you a few things about its only close relative, the Northern (or Abyssinian) Ground Hornbill, Bucorvus abyssinicus. Its scientific name means 'crow-hornbill of Abyssinia'. Abyssinia, you may know, is the old name for the country now called Ethiopia. A fascinating country, wildlife-wise, and the first from which the species has been described and named, but actually it is just one of many countries in which this big ground hornbill lives. Its distribution stretches from the westernmost coast of Africa, in the countries of Senegal and the Gambia, almost to the utmost East, in Ethiopia and the western parts of Somalia, and just about all countries in between. It also goes from the Sudan savannah belt a bit south of the Sahara, all the way (in East Africa) to the equator. Indeed, the equator is almost precisely the dividing line between the ranges of the northern and that of the southern ground hornbills! It's not known why they pay such attention to what is after all just a line existing in our imagination, but there it is.

In appearance, the northern ground hornbill is very much like the southern except for a few weird bits. It is also a very large bird, standing about a metre/yard tall on its long legs. Its plumage is black except for its white flight feathers. It is a bit leaner and lankier than the southern species. The main difference is in its face. Where the male southern ground hornbill has an all-red face and throat pouch, the northern male has a blue face and a red throat pouch with a blue patch, in which it is similar to the southern ground hornbill female; and the northern female has all-blue bare face and throat skin. My painting shows the male. Both sexes have a yellowish to pinkish patch on each side of the base of the upper bill. Also, both sexes have a tall, grooved helmet or 'casque' on top of the bill. It is much more voluminous than the simple ridge possessed by the southern ground hornbill, and uniquely as far as I know for hornbills, it looks like the tip has been cut off – it ends abruptly and with a large opening showing the casque's hollow interior.

Northern ground hornbills have the same sort of lifestyle as the southern ones. The live in somewhat drier, more open regions, but are also dependent on large trees, like baobabs, to nest in. They walk around the savannah on their toe-tips, peering at their surroundings with their eyes shaded by long, luxurious lashes. Their sharp and powerful bills allow them to catch, kill and devour critters from insects like beetles and their larvae or caterpillars, to large lizards, snakes and tortoises, and even small mammals and birds. They dig in the ground for grubs or peck into beehives for honey. They follow large grazing mammals or even bush fires so as to snatch small, fleeing critters. Although they feed mostly on the ground, they may leap or flutter up to catch prey in low shrubs. They occasionally feed on carrion, and rarely consume plant foods.

The call of the northern ground hornbill is a deep booming, similar to that of the southern, but slightly higher-pitched and faster-paced. A mated male and female will sing booming duets together.

Like the southern, the northern ground hornbills breed in large cavities in trees, often ones opening at the top. They don't close the entrances up like 'proper' hornbills do. They sometimes use hollows in rock faces, and in captivity have been seen to dig nest holes in earth banks using their beaks and feet. The male and female have a variety of courtship behaviours: they slap their beaks together and the male brings food to the female to show he's a good provider. The pair inspect likely nest sites and decide which one's best. The male brings lots of dry leaves with which the female lines the nest hole. The pair mate on the ground; the male then walks around the female with his feathers fluffed, calling loudly and tapping the ground with his beak.

After mating, the female lays one or two eggs. If two, it almost always happens that the second chick dies, as the first, older, stronger chick gets preferential care. (This means that the species can be aided by removing the second egg and hand-rearing the chick, to be released into the wild later.) The female remains on the nest as the male brings food for her, and later, for the chick. She herself stays with the chick all day for the first ten days or so, then starts leaving the nest, and by the time the chick is 15-20 days old, leaves it alone for long periods so she can find food along with her mate. The chick will leave the nest aged 80 to 90 days.

Ground hornbills are slow to mature, and the chick may remain with its parents until the age of three years. Each couple raises a chick on average only once every nine years. The birds live long, and can reach over thirty years in the wild.

These conspicuous birds are impacted by humans in various ways. In some countries they are totem animals, respected and left alone; in other places they are hunted. In the Sudan, Cameroon and Nigeria, some hunters use the dried-out heads of these hornbills as disguises; they crouch down and raise the heads above their bodies, to look like hornbills to the game they're stalking. In the Gambia, people who come across hornbills will often startle them into flight, because they believe it is bad luck to come across a hornbill that isn't flying! In some cultures, there are even songs made based on the duets of the male and female hornbills.

Hornbills also suffer from degradation and destruction of their savannah habitat, such as intensively farming it for livestock or crops. They lose many potential breeding sites when people cut down large trees. The birds need very large territories. The population appears to be decreasing and the species' conservation status is 'vulnerable'. They do occur in some large protected areas, but there is no specific plan for protecting or even monitoring them. There is cause for concern. On the positive side, the total range over which this species occurs, is extremely large, and there must still be several thousands of them around.

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