Rhinoceros hornbills are large cavity-nesting birds with black plumage, a white abdomen and a long, white tail crossed by a wide black band. Male and female rhinoceros hornbills look alike, except males have brownish-red eyes and females have blueish-white eyes.
What They Eat
Rhinoceros hornbills mostly eat fruits, especially figs. They also eat bird eggs, bugs, small reptiles and frogs. They pick up food with their beak and throw their head back to swallow it down.
Where They Live
Rhinoceros hornbills are found in undisturbed, dense lowland forests in Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand. They depend on large trees for nesting and feeding.
What They Do
Hornbills have an interesting nesting strategy in which the female is sealed in a tree cavity for 80-90 days with the egg, and later chick. The male feeds them through a small opening in the nest. When the chick is about 45 days old, the female leaves the nest. Both parents and chick then reseal the nest, leaving only the small opening for food. The chick remains safely sealed inside, fed by both parents, until it is about 80 days old.
How They’re Doing
With decreasing numbers, rhinoceros hornbills are listed as “vulnerable.” The greatest threats to their survival are deforestation and hunting.
- The 57 species of hornbill live only in Africa and Asia. Hornbills come in various sizes and shapes to match the conditions in their natural habitats. They range in size from the dwarf hornbill (3 ounces, 12 inches tall) to the southern ground-hornbill (13.6 pounds, 39 inches tall).
- Hornbills are easily recognized by the “horn,” called a casque on top of their beaks. It is made of keratin, the same material as your fingernails. The casque is thought to help amplify their honking call over long distances.
- Hornbills have feather bristles that function like eyelashes to protect their large eyes.
- The rhinoceros hornbill is the official symbol of the Malaysian state of Sarawak and has cultural significance to the indigenous people who live there.
- Rhinoceros hornbills are important seed dispersers, aiding in forest regeneration. Small seeds are deposited in feces and large seeds are regurgitated as they travel widely throughout their rainforest habitat.
With declining numbers, rhinoceros hornbills are categorized as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Rhinoceros hornbills depend on sizeable tracts of undisturbed tropical forest in order to find large trees for nesting, and enough food for survival. Unfortunately, much of the original tropical forest in southeast Asia has been harvested for timber and converted to cropland. Habitat loss is one of the primary threats to rhinoceros hornbill survival.
Rhinoceros hornbills are also hunted for meat, tail feathers and beaks. Rhinoceros hornbill casques (the large, hardened structure on top of the beak) and tail feathers are used in traditional medicines and for ceremonial purposes. Poachers sometimes mistake rhinoceros hornbills for helmeted hornbills. Unlike rhinoceros hornbills, helmeted hornbills have solid casques, which are more valuable than ivory. Additionally, rhinoceros hornbill chicks are captured for the pet trade.
Together, habitat loss and hunting are outpacing the rhinoceros hornbill’s slow reproductive rate. One of the easiest ways you can support rhinoceros hornbill conservation is by making sure any products you purchase that contain palm oil are sourced responsibly. Significant portions of habitat loss within rhinoceros hornbill range have been for the creation of palm oil plantations.
Things the Zoo’s done/doing
The Minnesota Zoo currently participates in the Rhinoceros Hornbill Species Survival Plan (SSP). In coordinated efforts with other zoos across the country, we are working to maintain genetic diversity and increase successful breeding in the zoo and aviary population. The first successful hatch of a rhinoceros hornbill chick at the Minnesota Zoo occurred in 2018.