Hornbills are remarkable creatures, to say the least. By turns awkward-looking and majestic, they are head-turners for even the most blasé non-birder. Their natural history is unique - in all but the two ground hornbills of Africa, males seal their females into the nest cavity with a plug of sun-hardened clay until their young are ready to emerge. Hornbills are vital fruit dispersers in tropical forests, and their conservation - a matter of considerable concern throughout tropical Asia - may be vital to the health of the whole forest ecosystem.
motif in Iban art It has become the symbol of the state of Sarawak, prominently featured on its coat of arms.
Our other hornbills revealed themselves during our jaunts along the river. Black Hornbills (Anthracoceros malayanus) are larger cousins of the Oriental Pied, and may be the second-commonest species on Borneo. This bird, with an ivory-white bill and broad and rather dashing white eyebrow, is a male.
The female is a blacker bird with a darker, less impressive bill.
This is the largest and most spectacular of the lot, a bird I had long wanted to see - our only Helmeted Hornbill (Bucorvus vigil). While many hornbills boast expanded casques perched atop their bills, the Helmeted is the only one whose casque is largely solid clear through (in the others, the casque is largely hollow, supported by a network of internal struts). Male Helmeted Hornbills need sturdy casques. Males apparently indulge in midair head-butting contests, as though they were some sort of flying goat. The sounds as they collide in flight reportedly resound through the forest like cannon shots. Now that is a bit of bird behaviour I would love too see!
Humans have made the head-butting weapon of the Helmeted Hornbill something of a liability. Because they are solid and can therefore be carved, their bills have become the only source of "hornbill ivory". Fortunately, unlike real ivory, hornbill ivory has never become an item of international commerce, and so there are still Helmeted Hornbills around for us to see.
My second new hornbill was one of the most colourful of the lot, at least as far as the bare skin around it's face is concerned. This is a Wrinkled Hornbill (Aceros corrugatus), marked with facial colours to rival the most brilliant of the (quite unrelated) toucans.