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Red-billed Hornbill

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Is the Red-billed Hornbill right for you?

Species group:

Other common names: African Red-billed Hornbill, Northern Red-billed Hornbill, Damara Red-billed Hornbill, Western Red-billed Hornbill, Southern Red-billed Hornbill, Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill

Scientific name: Tockus erythrorhynchus

The basics:
The Red-billed Hornbill was the first hornbill species bred in captivity, all the way back in 1926, in two German zoos. It may still be the most commonly available and easily bred of the hornbill species in captivity worldwide. Although no hornbill species is recommended to beginning bird breeders, the Red-billed may be a good first hornbill for the experienced bird breeder with plenty of space who is interested in trying this unusual group of birds.

However, there is one problem that zoos and breeders are starting to address. The traditional Red-billed Hornbill may end up being split into as many as five different species. Even if you don't accept full species status for all of these forms, you're talking about a number of different subspecies – any or all of which have probably been carelessly interbred in the past. If you plan to breed your birds, you should network with serious experts to give yourself the best chance of pairing your birds correctly to preserve the natural forms.

The five species or subspecies of Red-billed Hornbills are common and widely distributed throughout dryer grass and scrublands across a wide area of Africa south of the Sahara Desert. They will certainly dig in search of insects.

Appearance:
Distinguishing the five species or subspecies is beyond the scope of a short article. However, the “generic” Red-billed Hornbill is a handsome smaller Tockus hornbill with white underparts that contrast nicely with the black upperparts. The wings are spotted or speckled with more white. The bill is of course mostly red, with a generous black patch on the lower mandible of the male's bill and a smaller black patch on the female's. The size is given for Tockus erythrorhynchus erythrorhynchus, also known as Northern Red-billed Hornbill.

Weight:
Male: 124 - 185 grams (4.5 - 6.5 oz.)
Female: 90 - 151 grams (3.2 - 5.4 oz.)

Average size:
35 centimeters (14 in.)

Lifespan:
20 years

Behavior / temperament:
Even the wild Red-billed Hornbill can be a bold and confiding bird, willing to approach people in parks in hopes of earning a treat. They recognize park ranger uniforms and know when to take off before they are shooed off. Hand-fed or domestic-bred birds that are handled very early by humans can make adorable pets that follow you around. Do not neglect these pair bond birds. In the wild, they are extremely devoted to each other, and in captivity, a carefully tamed bird will transfer its affections to you. These days, you might have some difficulty finding one of these pets in the first place. If you are lucky enough to obtain one, treat it as the special treasure that it is.

Like the other Tockus hornbills, this species has a strong pair-bond. The female will seal herself into the nestlog while incubating the eggs and starting the young birds, knowing that she can rely on her devoted mate to bring a steady supply of food.

Housing:
The Red-billed Hornbill has gotten some contradictory press, but one thing is for sure: This species demands space. Some reports describe it as a ground bird that likes to dig. Others claim it is a tree species like the African Grey Hornbill, which would prefer to nest up high. Considering that the traditional bird known by this name may represent as many as five different species, it probably isn't surprising that we get some widely differing reports. In all cases, be prepared to supply a spacious climate-controlled well-planted aviary that gives your bird or pair some access to natural sunlight while offering protection from the cold and damp.

Don't house them with any other species unless you are highly experienced with creating mixed-species exhibits, as they are both territorial and decidedly carnivorous. A bird that couldn't get away might become a meal. If you have paired your birds, get advice from more experienced breeders about the proper size and placement of the nestlog.

Diet:
The Red-billed Hornbill can take fruit like many of its relatives, but it is reported to have a huge appetite for large insects in the wild, including such items as beetles an grasshoppers, and they'll also pursue larger vertebrate treats like tree frogs, lizards, snakes, or even small rodents. Because of this carnivorous diet, it's going to be a bit more challenging to feed than many Tockus hornbills.

One suggested diet includes low iron softbill pellets, a chopped fruit salad, mealworms, crickets, and pinkie mice. To increase the variety of insects available, it's probably a good idea to construct a live insect trap. A trap for small geckos or anoles might not go amiss either. The chopped fruit salad should contain a generous mix of fruits that are high in water – such as apple, kiwi, cherry, grapes, berries – and fruits that are rich in nutrients, such as soaked raisins. Chopped banana, papaya, and passionfruit are also a good addition to the diet.

Written by Elaine Radford

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