By Ajay Gadikar

The Hornbills

The Hornbills has always
fascinated me, may it be
because of their unique casque
on their beaks or their unique
nesting style, but they had created a lot of
interest for me to study them.

Although I had traveled to many parts
of the country to see the different species
but the one species that I kept my concentration to is the Indian Grey Hornbill.
I never knew that such clumsy looking
birds could become one of my favorite.
Now it’s been more than a decade that
I am trying to observe their nests and
understanding their breeding ecology of
Indian Grey Hornbill (IGH) in Indore.

Each year I observe a certain number
of nests during the nesting season and try
to document the nest success apart from
other valuable data.

Most of my nests that I study are from
the Residency area of the Indore city,
which still holds a good number of large
trees, important criteria of any hornbill

The data collected in so many years of
hornbill study has shown a considerable
success in their nesting and while doing
so I had also been able to depict some of
their unique adaptations in the human
dominated landscape.

The Indian grey hornbill, known to
be monogamous, is called as Dhanesh
in Hindi. Their breeding season commences in Feburary-March. To nest,
these birds use natural cavities or coaters
(naturally formed holes) in tall trees such as
Gulmohar, Neem, Peepal, Banyan, Silver
oak, Jamun etc. Outside their breeding
season these birds are frequently seen
in morning and evening feeding and
indulge in various social interactions like
bill grappling, aerial jousting and erratic
chases in the higher canopy of trees.

Indian Grey Hornbill nesting is very
unique. When it is time to lay the eggs,
the female hornbill enters the hole of
the tree trunk and does not step out into
daylight again, until it hatches the eggs
and the babies are at least one and half month old, which means she remains under the nest cavity until 60 to 65 days.

The female starts to seal the nest
cavity once she enters inside, only a
narrow slit of size 2-3 cm wide and 8-10
cm long remains open, from where the
male feeds the female. The materials used
to prepare the wall are mud, fruit pulp
and her own droppings. Once inside the
hole the female solely depends on the
male for her diet.

It is very hard to imagine that a
free-flying bird confining herself for a
two and half month prison. The female
hornbill answers the call of motherhood
by sacrificing so much. Once inside the
nest, the female lays 2-3 milky white eggs
and incubates them for around 20-25
days. During the incubation period, she
is known to shed her flight wings and
depend totally on the male for all her food

With his mate safely ensconced in the
nest, the male hornbill had to forage for
long distances to collect the food. The hornbill diet mostly consists of figs, the
fruits of Jamun, Neem, Bargad or Banyan,
Peepal and Gular, or ficus, and luckily for
these hornbills, the nest was well located
near plenty of large fruiting trees.

The male would hold the fruits in his
throat, and regurgitate them one by one
to feed his partner in the nest. Many times
he would also bring her insects as well. I
observed that in a single day he would
ferry 125-160 food items (around 5-10
tidbits each time) in around 20-25 trips to
the nest, from 5.30 am to 7.30 pm.

For the first time, I also observed that
the hornbill also feeds on chapattis and
sweets – certainly a surprise to us.

It appears that Hornbills have started
adapting to urban environments, where
fruit-bearing trees have dwindled in
number, due to the felling of trees for
housing and infrastructure, and sometimes, due to the vagaries of climate, fruit
either earlier or later than usual.

As soon the chicks hatched, their
calls for food could be heard and the
father increases the supply of food to
cater to the chicks’ insatiable appetites too.
When they are about one – and – a – halfmonths old, roughly they gain half the
size of their parents, the space inside the
nest began to become congested. It is the
time for the mother to emerge from the
coater. Many times I watched the female
breaking the wall to get out of her
self-confined prison. But since the cavity hole had narrowed further due to
some hardened mud pieces, her escape is mostly very painful. Some times she
even get stuck and killed also. Once the
female is out of the nest, the chicks had
to fend for themselves, they start building exactly the same kind of wall their
mother had, using fruit pulp, a little bit
of mud that remain inside the nest and
their own sticky droppings. It is incredible to see. No one taught them how to
do it; it is nature’s way to let them learn
by themselves. The male and female kept
watch on their activities by perching on
nearby branches. The young ones grow
fast and chirps loudly on their parent’s arrival. I could see they begin to understand
and respond to the world around them.
The father came to the nest and fed them
every few hours, the female Hornbill
also assumes some of the responsibility,
but the major task of feeding still rested
with the male. The chicks were also fed
with grasshoppers and other insects–rich
sources of protein that helps them grow
faster. When the right time came, the
female lured the chicks with food to
motivate them to fly. These tiny babies
by now were clearly restless to emerge
from the nest with their new flight wings.
While watching, I imagined that for this
Hornbill couple, the moment would be
akin to how we humans feel on seeing our
child take his or her first few staggering
steps. Finally one day the chicks lefts the
nest and take their first flight to the open
sky. It gave immense pleasure to see this
heartwarming scene



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