The hornbills are a very distinctive and curious group of birds, with their enormous bills, often decorated by a casque. On the ground, they look as though they should have great difficulty in holding up their heads and when flying the large nose is quite witch-like. But, of course, the bill is a lot lighter than it looks.
The Southern yellow-billed hornbill is a common resident of the bushveld, arid thornveld and savanna of Southern Africa. It is classified as a near-endemic in the region, with its range extending northwards into Angola.
As hornbills go, the yellow-billed hornbill variety is medium in size, its length being about 45 cm. The massive, deep yellow bill gives the bird its rather expressive Afrikaans name of “Geelbekneushoringvoël” which can be translated at “Yellow-mouthed, horn-nosed bird”. Its eyes are yellow, surrounded by a patch of bare pink skin, and it has a white belly, grey neck, and black back decorated with numerous white spots and stripes, The sexes are alike in plumage, although the male is slightly bigger than the female and has a bigger bill.
The Southern yellow-billed hornbill is often a solitary bird, or may be found in pairs or small groups. It forages mostly on the ground for rodents, insects, centipedes and so forth, and also for seeds and fruit. It has a habit, delightful to watch, of picking up a piece of food in the tip of its large bill and then tossing it backwards towards its throat so that it can be swallowed.
The call of the Southern yellow-billed hornbill is a loud wuk, wuk, wuk, often while prominently perched at the top of a tree and it will sometimes call in chorus with another bird.
The breeding habits of the hornbill are well known, the nest being a natural hole in tree, lined with dry grass and leaves, into which the female is sealed by the male, often using his own faeces, at breeding time. Three to five eggs are laid and they hatch after 24-26 days, but the female will remain sealed into the nest for a further three weeks or so before breaking out.
The scientific name for the Southern yellow-billed hornbill is Tockus leucomelas; “tockus” being onomatopoeic for the birds call and “leucomelas” from the two Greek words “leykos” meaning white or bright and “melas” meaning black. Thus a black and white bird that goes “tock”. Close enough!