The southern ground hornbill is a beloved bird species indigenous to Africa. It’s one of only two species of African ground hornbill; the other being the Abyssinian ground hornbill.

It is also the largest of all hornbills and regarded as one of the ‘Big Six’ birds to see in Southern Africa. They are actually quite common in most of southern Africa, especially the Kruger National Park.

However, that simple description doesn’t do our hornbill justice. Some aspects of the southern ground hornbill’s life and behaviour are remarkable, unusual and downright fascinating.

So let’s take a look at some wild and interesting things we know about this winged African treasure.

Scientific Name of the Southern Ground Hornbill

The scientific name for our beautiful bird is Bucorvus leadbeateri. It used to go by another name: Bucorvus cafer.

How to Identify Southern Ground Hornbills

Southern ground hornbill looking for food in elephant dung

You won’t have any trouble spotting a southern ground hornbill if one is in your vicinity. Make no mistake, they are deceptively big.

A fully-grown southern ground hornbill stands more than a metre tall and can weigh up to 6 kg. Its long legs reach up to a strong body covered in black plumage. When it spreads its wings, you may notice a few primary feathers at the ends that are white.

It’s also worth noting the toes, which seem to form a sort of tripod when standing on flat ground.

For the most part, they do prefer walking around on the ground, but their wingspan has been measured at up to 1.8m.

There’s a patch of skin over its face and throat, which makes it look a little bit like that of a vulture or turkey. Males have red patches over the eyes and throat. Females carry a blue patch on the skin of the throat.

Female southern ground hornbill, with a distinctive blue throat patch

However, the birds only develop these colours as adults. Before three years, the facial skin is grey or pale, and the feathers are not quite black, but a dark brown.

Of course, the most striking feature of the bird is the titular hornbill. It’s an impressively thick, slightly curved piece, designed for effective foraging, and capturing prey.

The “horn” on top of the bill looks like an extra piece of beak attached. It’s actually a chamber that amplifies the sounds the hornbill makes – to great effect!

Try to get a look at a southern ground hornbill looking at you directly. You’ll notice its beautiful, almost hypnotic eyes, complete with eyelashes that would make a fashion model jealous.

Habitat: Why It’s Called a ‘Southern’ Hornbill

We call them southern hornbills for a good reason. You can spot southern ground hornbills as far north as Kenya. Typically, they roam more south – specifically, the African savannas and grasslands of Angola, Namibia, and South Africa.

They like a combination of short grass in which they can forage for food and tall trees for nesting.

Essential Southern Ground Hornbill Facts

Three ground hornbills perched on a dead branch in Chobe, Botswana

Now that we know what it looks like and where to find it, let’s take a look at some wild and wonderful facts about our hornbill’s social life, diet, and genetic family.

Hornbill social life

Would you believe that southern ground hornbills live in ‘families’ or groups? Like a herd of grazers, hornbill flocks have a dominant pair. Anywhere up to ten or even more other birds accompany them, forming a group.

This is where it gets interesting. The dominant pair will usually be the oldest or biggest and strongest birds. The other birds act as a sort of support structure. They will hunt, help take care of young, and do much of the ‘work’ of the flock.

Southern ground hornbill breeding is complicated

Family of southern ground hornbills - with young - resting on a dead tree, Okavango Delta

If the social setup of this hornbill sounds strange, the process of raising chicks is mind-blowing. The southern ground hornbill is what is technically referred to as an “obligate cooperative breeder.” This means that to breed successfully, a mating pair uses the assistance of other birds to rear their chicks.

They require at least two “assistants”. And studies have shown that when these assistants are not present, adult hornbills usually fail to breed successfully. This also means that when hornbills are juveniles, they assist older pairs with rearing young.

Even more bizarrely, studies have shown that hornbills who did not assist others with young are less likely to rear their own young.

Hornbills lay 2 or 3 eggs at a time, after around 45 days of incubation. Only one of these – usually the oldest and strongest  – survives, as it takes most of the food provided.

So parents will rear one fledgling for around three months. After that they will still be dependent on the older birds for two years or so.

The southern hornbill lifespan: How long do hornbills live

Hornbills live a surprisingly long life. Although infant mortality is high (70%), it’s not uncommon for birds to reach 50-60 years of age. Impressive.

Side-fact: They will reach maturity at 6, and be ready to breed from around 10 years old.

What do hornbills eat?

Ground hornbill swallowing a grasshopper

In the wild, southern ground hornbills are like baboons in that they are skilled foragers and hunters. Yes, they are carnivorous, and will happily seek out all kinds of insects and small animals to eat.

Count various arthropods, snails, frogs and some snakes among their meals. Small rodents like hares and mice may also be on the menu. Some say that hornbills aren’t fussy, really – anything they can eat, they will. Strangely, though, they hardly ever seem to drink water.

Their diet will largely depend on where they are, what is in abundance, and whether they can overpower it.

You shouldn’t be surprised to find groups of hornbills in close proximity to troops of baboons or other animals. They often form feeding groups, going where the food is, so to speak.

In fact, scientists often look to hornbills as one key indicator of the health of a biome.

What are the predators of the southern ground hornbill?

There are a few enemies in the wild for our southern ground hornbill. If they are not paying attention, they may be taken by a ferocious martial eagle, a leopard, or a fast crocodile. Young are also vulnerable to snakes.

Like so many of Africa’s beautiful creatures, the main threat to hornbills comes from human expansion, environmental poisoning, logging, and hunting.

It’s a shame, because hornbills are fairly harmless to humans.

The Call of the Southern Ground Hornbill

Southern ground hornbills don’t care much for being subtle when it comes to noise. They use a few different calls for different reasons. Often these calls are group choruses, and can travel as far as 3 km away.

During mating season, the male makes a huge booming sound that can be mistaken for a lion’s roar! If you’re out in the field and you hear it, lock your doors, just to be sure. You don’t want to get this one wrong. 🙂

A grunting sound is most common when birds are exerting themselves in play or fighting. Younger birds and females also have a particular cry when feeding time arrives.

A more frenetic alarm sounds when there’s a predator nearby, and lastly, there’s a territorial boom that indicates a group’s presence. These are also loud, meant to signal to other hornbills kilometres away.

A hornbill by any other name

If you’re traveling around Africa, rangers and locals may refer to the southern ground hornbill by another name. Here are a few of the most common variations:

  • English: Southern Ground Hornbill
  • Afrikaans: Bromvoël
  • isiZulu: Ingududu/iNsingizi
  • isiXhosa: Intsikizi
  • Setswana: Lehututu
  • Tshivenda: Dandila
  • Xitsonga: Nghututu
  • Sepedi: Mahutuhutu

Other Types of Hornbills Found in Southern Africa

African grey hornbill in its natural habitat

Several other varieties of hornbill live in the southern regions, especially in South Africa. All of them are smaller than the majestic southern ground, though all carry some form of the distinctive curved beak.

  • African Grey Hornbill (Lophoceros nasutus)
  • Trumpeter Hornbill (Bycanistes bucinator)
  • Crowned Hornbill (Lophoceros alboterminatus)
  • Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas)
  • Southern Red-Billed Hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus rufirostris)

Conservation and Challenges Ahead

Because the hornbill reproduces so slowly, and its numbers have declined somewhat rapidly over the past few decades, it is listed as vulnerable or endangered in many countries.

Fortunately, conservation efforts are underway, with the understanding that the birds are not quite yet under serious threat.

Hopefully Not the Last Word on Southern Ground Hornbills

Southern ground hornbill in flight, revealing its impressive wingspan

This is a fascinating and undeniably beautiful bird. Who can resist those soulful eyes? Who can resist that beautiful beak and that booming voice like a lion’s roar?

It would be a shame to no longer have the southern ground hornbill among us, if only to observe their unique family life and bizarre breeding strategy.

So next time you’re on an African safari, make a point enquiring with the ranger about the biggest hornbill of them all – our gorgeous southern ground hornbill!