Great hornbills are fascinating birds, even if you set aside their vivid appearance. For starters, they are monogamous and mate with one partner throughout their lives. More intriguing still, is their nesting arrangement that involves the female sealing herself in a hole for months at a stretch.
“Everything about them is unique,” says hornbill biologist Pooja Pawar, who has been observing the birds for over five years now. Pooja has been monitoring the populations in the Anaimalai Hills of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, with a focus on nesting. “I find their parenting behaviour very interesting, very specialised, and I am curious to see how they adapt to the changes in their landscape.”
Great hornbills are generally found around primary forests that are thick, lush, and abundant. But lately, the birds have been sighted in coffee plantations too, foraging for fruit, even nesting on occasion. Sightings have been recorded in the Terai grasslands and Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, but the most recognised habitat of the great hornbill is the Western Ghats and parts of Northeast India.
Every year, as winter approaches, the heritage village of Kisama in Nagaland begins preparations for the annual Hornbill Festival. Attended by locals and travellers from across the world, the ten-day event is a celebration of the state’s cultural heritage. There are tribal dance performances, stalls selling beaded Naga jewellery, and plenty of local food and drink (from smoked pork to chhang) — all set against the backdrop of the lofty Japfu peak.
But alas, few real hornbills to be seen.
A few decades ago, it was quite common to see birds soaring above the misty forest canopy around Kisama. Today, the only living hornbill in the state is probably at the Nagaland Zoological Park, a feisty female called Julie, that has occasionally made appearances on the zoo’s Facebook page.
Hornbills and indigenous communities around the world have had a complex relationship. For instance, the Iban people of Borneo think of the bird as a messenger of the spirits, a winged vehicle that transports souls to the afterlife. On the Indonesian island of Sumba, they are considered symbols of fidelity, while closer home in India, hornbills are revered by tribes of the Northeast. Their large, back-and-white feathers were once awarded as badges of honour, and are still worn by erstwhile chieftains during ritual performances. However, this relationship hasn’t always been healthy. Great hornbills were once hunted almost to extinction for their casques, by some tribes in Northeast India.