Great Hornbills - Courtship

Great Hornbills are majestic, large sized birds of the high canopied rainforests, across the South and Southeast Asia. It is one of the larger species of hornbills, growing to be anywhere between 3 & 4 ft in length, weighing between 2.5 to 3.5 kgs and a wingspan of around 5 ft. They are mostly seen moving along the canopies, foraging on various kinds of fruits, which is their primary diet. Fig trees are their most favourite, with they attributing to around 73% of their source of food.

Very few know that there is an amazing romantic side to these rather huge birds too. They are known to be monogamous and have quite an elaborate courtship process. So beautiful to watch these lovely animals going through the established protocols, sort of like taking the vows, to ensure a happy married life.

Courtship begins once the rightful, victorious male gets together with a willing female. Through the entire process, the onus is on the male to convince the lady that he is a loving and dependable mate. This is so very crucial, as the lives of the female and her future chicks, quite literally, depend on the male.

From what I observed, the courtship seemed like a full dress rehearsal for the ensuing nesting period. While nesting, the female enters into a nesting spot (usually an appropriately chosen hole in a tree) and seals herself inside for a duration of close to 2 months, until the eggs are laid, incubated, hatch and the chicks fledge ( grow feathers and are ready to fly ). During all this, the female looses her feathers and becomes very vulnerable. She depends on the male to bring her and her chicks the food needed to survive. Hence, as a part of the courtship, the female has to decide that the prospective male is indeed trustworthy. 

During courtship, the couple is always together. The male follows the female everywhere she goes, every step of the way.

As she moves from branch to branch, he follows… (female on the right and male on the left)


If she takes flight…


He follows…


The male brings a fruit and attempts feeding the female.


Initially, the lady shows no interest. She is busy preening herself. However, the male is persistent.


Finally, she obliges. This is probably another way of ensuring that the feeding is done the right way and that the male is patient and determined.


They visit the chosen nesting spot everyday. The male comes with a feed.


He then tries to put his head inside the tree hole as a way of making sure that when the time comes, he will be able to reach inside and get to his awaiting mate and chicks, with the food.

As the male tries these out , the female sits on a tree nearby and watches intently. The pair repeat the process many times over the next few days to make sure that things are perfect before the actual nesting process begins. Very much understandable, as there can be no room for error here. At the end of the dress rehearsal, if the female feels that all is well, the pair, then move on to start their own family.

Having previously seen just glimpses of these beautiful birds, getting to spend good amount of time with them and observe their wonderful courtship was amazing. To realise that these birds are near-threatened owing to rapid de-forestation and habitat loss is heartbreaking. Every bit of our effort and support is needed in ensuring that these birds thrive in our forests for a long time to come.

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