hornbill

hornbill, common name for members of the family Bucerotidae, Old World birds of tropical and subtropical forests, named for their enormous down-curved bills surmounted by grotesque horny casques. From 2 to 5 ft (61–152.5 cm) in length, they are the largest of an order that also includes the hoopoe . Hornbills are black and dark brown with patches of white or cream on the body, wings, and tail. The bill is usually brownish, though in some species it is black, red, or yellow.

Omnivorous, hornbills eat fruits, berries, insects, and small animals. They have loud, far-carrying voices and a variety of calls, including brays, toots, bellows, and cackles. They are noted for their unusual nesting habits; presumably as a defense against monkeys and snakes, the female is sealed into the nesting cavity by the male, who feeds her through a bill-sized aperture for a period of from 6 weeks to 3 months while she incubates the eggs. This practice, and the fact that hornbills mate for life, has made them the subject of superstition among native tribes, who use them (or representations of them) in religious rituals as symbols of purity and fidelity.

The great hornbill, Buceros bicornis, ranges from India to Indochina and Sumatra. The helmeted hornbill, Rhinoplax vigil, found on the Malay Peninsula and the islands Sumatra and Borneo, has a casque that has been used an alternative for ivory, and illegal hunting for its casque and habitat loss have endangered the species.

Hornbills are classified in the phylum Chordata , subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Bucerotiformes (or, according to some authorities, Coraciiformes), families Bucerotidae and Bucorvidae.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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