The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill

Yellow-billed Hornbill at sunrise. Photo: Warren Schmidt.

The Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill is one of the iconic birds of the savanna biome, or bushveld. Often referred to as the ‘Rod Stewart’ of birds due to its flamboyant plumage and bright yellow bill. These birds are distributed widely across the savannas of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. They show a preference for open, dry, broadleaf woodland and Acacia savanna where they can be locally abundant. They generally move about in pairs and seldom form flocks, but will gather in groups around productive feeding zones.

Yellow-billed Hornbills spend a lot of time foraging on the ground but usually launch themselves from a perch higher up. They will also forage along branches and tree trunks. The diet is varied, and these birds will take a variety of invertebrates and small vertebrates, even taking other bird eggs and small rodents and lizards. Spiders, scorpions, grasshoppers and beetles all form part of the diet and prey is manipulated and pulverized in the large beaks. Fruits and seeds also make up an important part of their diet. 

Male and females are monogamous breeders and construct solitary nests inside tree cavities. These are lined with bark and dry foliage. They often use cavities with small vertical cracks and manage to manoeuvre in and out of these small spaces. Females lay an average of 3-4 eggs which take up to 24 days to hatch. Chicks emerge from their nest cavity after 19 to 27 days and will remain nearby as the adults continue to feed them for several days, after which they take flight and follow the parents to foraging sites. 

These birds are easy to spot and are particularly active in the early morning. On cool and overcast days they are active throughout the day. They are common in most nature reserves and national parks in the savanna biome, and often seen around rest camps in the Kruger National Park and Pilanesberg. 

May be confused with the Red-billed Hornbill which has a distinctly red bill and not as broad or yellow as in the Yellow-billed Hornbill.  

Class: Aves
Order: Bucerotiformes
Family: Bucerotidae
Species: Tockus leucomelas 
Etymology: Tockus = derived from Latin and an onomatopoeic reference to its calls. leucomelas = white and black (in reference to the plumage). 
IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

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