Bucorvidae – Ground-hornbills

Long-lived, slow-breeding, and ground-dwelling. There's more to unravel than that name hints

Comprising only two extant species—the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill and the Southern Ground Hornbill—is a remarkable example of avian adaptation and specialization. These majestic birds are characterized by their large size and predominantly black plumage, which could lead one to liken them to turkeys superficially. However, upon closer inspection, the vibrant patches of bare skin—red to purplish in color—around their eyes and throat provide a stark and striking contrast, making these birds unmistakable.

Ground Hornbills are inherently terrestrial, spending most of their time on the ground, a trait that is atypical for most hornbill species, which tend to be arboreal. The name ‘Ground Hornbill’ is thus apt, highlighting their preference for walking rather than flying, reflected in their strong legs and toes adapted for a life spent foraging on the African savanna.

Their diet is omnivorous, but they show a strong preference for meat, which is indicative of their skilled predatory nature. Ground Hornbills will actively hunt and consume a wide range of prey, including insects, lizards, tortoises, and even venomous snakes, which they can handle with remarkable dexterity using their powerful bills. The strength and construction of their bill allow them to deal effectively with a variety of prey and forage by moving debris and digging into the soil.

One of the most notable behaviors of Ground Hornbills is their vocal communication. Their calls, particularly at dawn, are deep, booming, and can carry over great distances, often being mistaken for the roar of a distant lion. These calls serve multiple purposes: they reinforce social bonds within the group, establish territorial boundaries, and can also be used to locate one another in dense habitats.