Perhaps one of the most bizarre-looking birds in the world, the helmeted hornbill is a creature like no other. Like a mythical creature from another planet, its maniacal laugh used to fill the rainforests of Southeast Asia.
Now critically endangered, this bird has been hunted to the brink of extinction for its incredible ‘ivory’ casque that gave it its name.
How can we save the helmeted hornbill from becoming a mythical creature for generations to come? Learning all about the surviving population would be a good start…
What Does the Helmeted Hornbill Look Like?
The helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is a truly spectacular-looking bird!
It has a black back, black wings with white tips, a white belly, and white legs. Its bizarre wrinkled throat patch is creamy white in females and deep scarlet in males.
Its extraordinarily long tail gives this bird an almost-dragon-like appearance. The tail feathers are white with black bands near the tips of each feather. The two central tail feathers are extra long which gives the bird an enormous total length.
The most famous characteristic of the helmeted hornbill, though, is its iconic ‘casque’ which runs halfway down the top of its red and yellow bill.
Helmeted Hornbill Size
Excluding the tail feathers, the helmeted hornbill’s body length measures 43-47 inches (110-120cm).
But the tail feathers are so long that they boost the bird’s length by almost 2 feet, giving a total length of up to 67 inches (170cm). That’s about as long as the average human lying down!
But while they may be as long as a person, they’re not as heavy! Female helmeted hornbills weigh around 6lb (2.7kg) on average, whereas the slightly larger males have been recorded to weigh more than 6.5lb (3kg).
Where Does the Helmeted Hornbill Come From?
Helmeted hornbills are native to the tropical forests of Southeast Asia on the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo, and Southern Thailand.
Typical Habitat of the Helmeted Hornbill
Helmeted hornbills live in primary evergreen and semi-evergreen equatorial rainforests. They spend most of their time high up in the canopy and tend to avoid human contact. One of their preferred foods is the fruit of the strangler fig, making this tree one of their favorite haunts.
This Asian hornbill nests in large tree cavities high up on ancient trees. Amazingly, the female seals herself into the nesting hole, and typically raises a single chick.
The male is responsible for their food supply for the next five months, passing the mother and baby fruits and other food items through the tiny entrance to their nesting cavity. Talk about dedication!
What Does the Helmeted Hornbill Sound Like?
The call of the helmeted hornbill is as remarkable as any other feature of this bird.
It begins with a series of loud, almost owl-like hoots, which gradually accelerate into a mad laughing crescendo: ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
What Does the Helmeted Hornbill Eat?
The helmeted hornbill’s favorite food is undoubtedly figs, and males are even thought to sometimes fight over fruiting fig trees!
Many people don’t realize that helmeted hornbills also sometimes eat meat. They’ve been observed feeding on squirrels and snakes, as well as other birds.
Does the Helmeted Hornbill Migrate?
Helmeted hornbills don’t migrate but do travel large distances over the forest in search of fruiting trees. This nomadic feeding behavior makes them a key seed disperser in lowland forests.
How Long Does the Helmeted Hornbill Live?
Large hornbill species are known to live for over 40 years in the wild.
Some people even think helmeted hornbills might sometimes exceed 50 years, although further scientific research is required to confirm their maximum lifespan.
Helmeted Hornbill Conservation Status
Tragically, the helmeted hornbill is classified as critically endangered.
Because the ivory casque of this bird has become so valuable, hunting has increased, crippling populations of these birds over the past decade. In response to this, the IUCN reclassified this magnificent bird in 2015 from ‘near threatened’ to ‘critically endangered.’
This is the most serious classification and means that these incredible creatures are at risk of extinction.
This means that conservation initiatives are crucial to curb the illegal trade of hornbill casques and also restore the extensive rainforest that these birds need to survive.
Do Helmeted Hornbills Fight With One Other?
Helmeted hornbills have been documented going head to head in epic aerial combat, where males fly toward each other, smashing their casques against each other in mid-air.
These battles can last for up to two hours and are thought to be caused by defending territories, squabbles over food sources, and even intoxication from the consumption of fermented figs!
Do Helmeted Hornbills Mate for Life?
Yes! Helmeted hornbills are remarkably faithful creatures and are well-known for their life-long partnerships.
What Is the Largest Hornbill in the World?
The helmeted hornbill is the longest hornbill in Asia, but in terms of overall mass, it is dwarfed by the African Southern ground hornbill.
While helmeted hornbills rarely exceed much over 6.5lb (3kg), their African cousins can weigh more than 9lb (4kg), making them the largest hornbills in the world.
Where Can I See Helmeted Hornbills?
One of this hornbill’s few remaining strongholds is Thailand’s Budo-Sungai Padi National Park.
In this region, former poachers are encouraged to become tourist guides, allowing them to make a better living by showing people living birds rather than killing and selling dead ones.