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Thursday, August 18, 2022

What makes grey hornbills so enchanting

They can hold a neem berry deftly in their pickaxe-like beak, toss it up and gulp it down like one would toss a peanut into the mouth

Written by Ranjit Lal |
June 29, 2022 11:09:40 am
Hornbill, bird, grey horn bill, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, yellow bills, sunday eye, eye 2022, ranjit lal column, indian express newsGrey hornbills have done well in Delhi, but they’re nowhere as glamorous as their forest-dwelling cousins, the huge Great Indian Hornbill with enormous yellow bills and casques. (Credit: Ranjit Lal)

A few days ago, (for the second time) a baby grey hornbill perched on my towel hung out in the balcony and caught my eye, reminding me that at least they were doing well – having been born and brought up in the Nicholson Cemetery, New Delhi, next door. He or she only gave me enough time to snap a couple of pictures before flying off; but the message was clear: it’s time you wrote about us dude…

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I first met grey hornbills decades ago in the lush verdant midst of Mumbai’s Borivali National Park – now known as the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. It was early morning and overcast and we were stumbling over huge slabs of cracked cement and tarmac – part of an abandoned and ill-conceived highway project right in the middle of the forest. Foliage sprouted between the cracks and crouched over us because the monsoon had begun. It was all too easy to imagine you were back in time millions of years ago. And then, we heard this high-pitched squealing call, coming from high overhead, in the ivory-white sky, there they were: a small flock of flying lizard-like creatures, flap-gliding in tandem, as they made their way across the sky. Their downward curving pickaxe-like bills, crowned with that strange casque on top made them look even more antediluvian and all it took now was a Brontosaurus to come stomping up to complete the picture. Alas, none did, but the birds were enchanting enough.

Here, in Delhi, I was able to renew my acquaintance with them at a more personal level. Every spring (March and April) the hornbills residing in the cemetery next door, would begin squealing and one often caught sight of them flying between the trees, or perching high up on some bough, dangling their long tails nonchalantly. They’re a little larger than the black kite and dressed in shabby grey, have lovely long eyelashes and their down-curved profile makes them look somewhat bemused: as if they’re wondering what the heck they are doing in the modern world and what happened to all the dinosaurs…

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That huge down-curved bill of theirs can be a formidable weapon (while hunting small rodents, lizards and nestlings), but is also used for gentler purposes. Grey hornbills are largely frugivorous subsisting especially on figs and berries. A pair would regularly perch on the Persian lilac (alas, long deceased) in front of my balcony, dangle their tails and delicately pick off the berries, like someone using a giant pair of chopsticks. In spring, grey hornbills get romantically inclined and now the gentleman would perch by his lady, and begin to woo her.

Once, a pair was on a neem tree just across the cemetery wall, and here the gentleman leaned over and with infinite delicacy picked up a single green neem-berry as if selecting the rarest emerald from Columbia. He diffidently hopped close to his lady and gently offered it to her. Now which lady could resist such a gem: she took it from him and gulped it down. Hugely excited he cast about for more – and there were plenty. In his excitement he almost toppled over backwards to pick an especially large one and I knew, now they were an “item”.

Sure enough, they found a hollow in another neem tree nearby and set up home here. The lady ensconced herself in the hollow, and laid probably 2 or 3 dull white eggs. To ensure ‘scoorty’ (security), she blocked the entrance to the hollow using her own excreta (not hygienic perhaps but effective) and mud pellets while her caring husband did the same from the outside using mud. (What would happen if he discovered reinforced concrete?) A narrow slit was left through which he would, all through her three-week period of incubation and when the chicks were very young, feed his beloved with a stash of berries (and maybe a lizard or two) which he would regurgitate one by one and she would gulp down gratefully.

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It’s astonishing how deft they are with that huge pickaxe of a bill: they can hold a neem berry right at the tip of their bills, toss it up and gulp it down rather like a teenager would toss up a peanut and catch it in his or her mouth. Once the eggs hatched, the male would have to work doubly hard, and as they grew hungrier and bigger their mother would finally one day, break out of her prison and rather dazedly join her husband outside, while the chicks, now home alone would quickly seal off the entrance to their nursery again. Now both parents could focus on feeding their ravenous family and once the chicks were properly fledged they would break out themselves and take their first look at the big, bad world outside.

As they have visited me more than once, I wonder if word had got around that there was this weird dude who watched them from his balcony, and it might be a good idea to check him out.

Grey hornbills have done well in Delhi, but they’re nowhere as glamorous as their forest dwelling cousins, the huge Great Indian Hornbill or the Malabar hornbill, magnificent black and white birds with enormous yellow bills and casques. The ordinary Malabar hornbill is a little wimpier looking though and resembles the grey hornbill. I first encountered the great Indian hornbill in Corbett – we heard this strange rasping sound coming from the sky and there they were; a small flock of about five or six birds flying in tandem across the sky: Unforgettable.

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First published on: 29-06-2022 at 11:09:40 am

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