There are many exotic birds at Colchester Zoo, helping to draw visitors each day to one of our town’s most popular tourist attractions. The Rufous Hornbill has to be one of the most unusual and instantly recognisable of any of its bird, with its large red bill and casque above it, a throwback to its prehistoric ancestors.
The Rufous Hornbill is a large bird, up to 50-inches in height, weighing up to 4kg with a 60-inch wingspan. The large structure on its head is called a casque. It’s hollow, made of keratin, acting as an amplification chamber for the bird’s loud calls and possibly in sexual selection. The back of the casque is reddish in females, while the underside of the front and back of the casque is black in males, appearing U-shaped when viewed from the front.
Rifous Hornbills are tropical birds whose native habitat is the hilly areas and forests of the Philippines found at an altitude of upto 2100 meters. In the wild these birds live in small groups of 3-7 birds, spending their time foraging along branches, moving along by hopping, mainly eating fruit, also insects, nestling birds and small lizards. Their prey once caught are tossed in the air and then swallowed whole.
Their breeding season is from January to April, becoming vocal with their mating calls, nesting in tall trees, often at the top of the forest canopy. It’s the female hornbills who build their nest in tree hollows, sealing the opening with a plaster mainly made of faeces. The female lays one or two eggs, which she incubates for 38–40 days, remaining with them. The chicks are born without a casque, which only begins to develop in the bird’s third year.
Few hornbills are kept in captivity, as they are difficult to breed and its nearly always females which are kept. Colchester Zoo keeps two birds, which always seem popular amongst visitors.