Nothing speaks of spring in the bushveld like the appearance of the next generation of wildlife. While cubs, fawns, calves and foals may command most of your attention during game drives on your south African safari, you can be sure that there’s a newly hatched crop of birds in the wings too.
Most bird species in the Thornybush Private Nature Reserve will start to feather their nests during the rainy season, which is around October in this part of the world.
Some of them go to a little more trouble than throwing a few twigs together in preparation for their new family. The most famous of these are the industrious weaver birds, but the southern yellow-billed hornbill has one of the most interesting nesting rituals of all.
As the bush welcomes the first rains, you’ll hear the vocal celebration of these birds and may be lucky enough to see them displaying and dancing to impress their mate. Southern yellow-billed hornbills are monogamous birds, living in pairs or small groups, but they still indulge in elaborate display rituals to fan the flames of their ardour by bowing to each other and fanning their wings behind their back.
During the courtship phase of the breeding season, the male woos the female with titbits of food from his mouth. Once they have consummated their courtship, they look for a place to set up house together.
The ideal spot for the lucky couple is a natural hole in a tree (preferably facing north-east). An abandoned woodpecker or barbet’s nest will do the trick too. Together, they will line their chosen spot with bark and leaf litter.
As soon as the final preparations are done, the female enters the nest and closes the entrance with her faeces, which harden to form a solid wall. She leaves a small space in her construction and during her confinement, the male will bring her food and push it through this hole. In turn, she rejects any waste through the same gap.
The female lays 3 or 4 eggs and incubates them for 25 days, without leaving the nest. During this time, she loses all her flight and tail feathers, making her totally dependent on the male, and defenceless if he is killed or defects.
While in the nest, her feathers regrow, and she breaks down the wall and emerges with new plumage when the oldest chick is about 3 weeks of age.
Both parents work together to seal up the nest again and will rotate the feeding duties for the next 6 weeks. When they are mature, their voices change and as soon as the parents hear this, they stop bringing them food.
Ultimately, hunger forces the chicks to break down the wall of their nest to find out what’s going on, but it usually takes them a few days to work up the courage to leave. They can’t go anywhere without flying, so that’s another milestone the youngsters must reach in order to survive.
While this method of breeding is rather labour-intensive, it does ensure that the next generation of southern yellow-billed hornbills is well protected while they’re at their weakest and that they emerge ready to take on the world.
If you want to learn more about the innate survival skills of bird and animals, you may as well do it in style. Book your South African safari with Thornybush and learn in luxury.