Red-billed Hornbill

Tockus erythrorhyncus

Red List Status: LC – Least Concern (IUCN 2018)

Distribution: Africa; much of the Sub-Saharan continent from the edge of the desert to northern South Africa (absent from the forests across most of West and Central Africa). The four subspecies/possible species are: T. e. erythrorhynchus (Northern Red-billed Hornbill) in the northern part of range from Mali and Burkina Faso east to Somalia and south to northern Tanzania;  T. e. rufirostris (Southern Red-billed Hornbill) in south-east Angola east to northern South Africa; T. e. ruahae (Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill) in Tanzania only; T. e. kempi (Western Red-billed Hornbill) in Senegal, The Gambia, east into northern Guinea and western Mali. 

Description: 35 cm. Male 124-220 g; female 90-200 g. From other sympatric Tockus hornbills by combination of pied plumage with white-spotted wings and red bill; except from Jackson’s Hornbill where they overlap by smaller bill and reddish (not black) area around eye. Nominate race is a small slender hornbill with pied plumage and long, slender reddish bill in male that has black inner half of lower mandible. Female is smaller and bill all red. Juvenile of either sex resembles adult male, pale orange bill shorter with black patch at base. Subspecies differ mainly in facial features of cheek plumage, eye and circum-orbital skin colours. 

Voice: The call is a series of high-pitched chucking notes uttered singly, or in a series leading into double notes when more excited kokkok-kok …kokok-kokok. The calls of at least some of the subspecies differ in quality and tempo, and the head-down bobbing display movements in the extent that the wings are closed or opened, but more detailed analysis is required.

Audio from xeno-canto

Habits: The Red-billed hornbill occurs in savanna, open woodlands and grasslands with some trees. In dry areas, such as Namibia and the Sub-Saharan region, it extends into drier thorn-scrub and stony hills. It occurs from the lowlands to elevated areas, in Ethiopia up to 2,100 m elevation. It perches in trees but takes most of its food (94% according to one survey) on the ground; in the northern part of the range, the nominate subspecies also feeds in the trees, especially in regions where it is the only Tockus hornbill. It walks and runs around on the ground and hunts mainly for insects and other invertebrates. It likes to dig through loose dirt and leaf-litter with its long bill; it often visits piles of droppings from the big game to pick up beetles and fly larvae in the dung. Other important food items include termites, ants, grasshoppers as well as butterflies, crickets, centipedes, scorpions and occasionally vertebrate prey such as small lizards, bird nestlings and rodents. It will take a few fruits and seeds, and in some parts of the range, like West and East Africa, vegetable matter is an important part of the diet. It is usually found as resident pairs or small family parties. It is territorial during the breeding season, and the pair normally sticks to their home range, flying out to feed in the surrounding savanna in the early morning and returning to a roosting tree in the evening. During the dry season when not breeding, it becomes somewhat nomadic in most areas and flocks may form, feeding together and gathering at watering holes in the savanna where dung piles and food are plentiful, but often returning to roost on territory. In Zimbabwe, flocks numbering hundreds have been reported, and in a bizarre incident some 1,000 birds drowned while trying to cross Lake Kariba during a migration-like movement.