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Ground Hornbills – Rare and Endangered Avian Comics, Hoedspruit, Lowveld, Mpumalanga, South Africa.
Because of the diversity of its flora and fauna, Africa is full of surprises. And I was surprised when, on a game drive in the Lowveld, I first saw a ground hornbill.
They are large ungainly creatures about the size of a turkey that spend most of their time on the ground searching for prey such as snakes, lizards, small rodents, snails, etc – i.e. basically anything they can catch, immobilize and swallow, for which they use their large scimitar-shaped hornbill (the Afrikaans word – snawel -- is more expressive) with dexterity. With the exception of white primary flight feathers in the wings, their feathers are a uniform glossy black colour. Another distinguishing feature is the bare patches of bright red (males), blue (females) and yellow (juvenile) skin on their face and throat. They inspect one with a penetrating stare of their pale blue eyes that reveals their unusual intelligence. They live in small monogamous family groups of up to 10 individuals for almost 70 years – an unusually long time for birds. In the late afternoon, at sundown, they give a characteristic booming call – please forgive the analogy but it sounds like a henpecked husband responding with an "...mmmmmmm" to his wife's nagging every few seconds. Only much louder -- it can be heard for miles. Hence their Afrikaans name – bromvoel.
Sentrachem once owned a game lodge in the Timbavati Game Reserve on the eastern border of the Kruger National Park. Company executives were occasionally permitted to use the lodge for corporate getaways. On one such occasion I saw the characteristic flash of white against the black background as a ground hornbill flew up to its nest, which was in a large tree several feet off the ground. I was pleased with the sighting because they are extremely rare and thus endangered and asked the game ranger Bruce MacDonald about them.
He noted that their nesting places are destroyed when large trees are removed from the environment, which had contributed to their decline in the wild. One researcher was attempting to arrest this decline by suspending large concrete “nests” from tall trees. They were pleased with the result because a nest had been erected near the lodge and a family of hornbills had moved in. The researcher in question lived nearby and Bruce suggested that we invite him over to give us a lecture, to which I readily agreed. The researcher subsequently arrived and proceeded to give an excellent lecture, during which he noted that:
- A captive breeding program has been established at Pretoria Zoo, the objective of which is to reintroduce birds into the wild.
- He had recently attempted to release a young bird into the wild. Unfortunately the wild birds in the vicinity took no notice of it and, in spite of the fact that it was in a cage, it had unfortunately been killed by a cheetah.
- The small local population was threatened by lodge owners because of their habit of pecking at their reflections in the windows of unoccupied lodges, smashing them with their powerful bills. Fortunately a solution to this problem had been found. A photograph of a caracal (rooikat) was pasted inside the window. When the hornbills saw the photograph they lost interest in attacking their reflections and scarpered.
My children listened, fascinated. While he was talking it occurred to me that his photographs of the birds, with their large, pale blue eyes, penetrating stare, large bills and ungainly gait bore and uncanny resemblance to Groucho Marx. Afterwards we returned to our chalets for the night, the children chattering excitedly. Then one mentioned that the researcher had a very large nose, the same penetrating gaze and, like the birds, cocked his head slightly to one side when talking. At exactly the same moment we all stumbled to the same conclusion – the researcher and his birds bore a remarkable resemblance to each other. Then we laughed and laughed and occasionally, when we reminisce, we end up giggling all over again.
Hoedspruit is on the R40 north of Nelspruit, which is at the intersection of the R40 with the N.
2530/2%Last update: 2014-05-14 14:04
Author: Alan McIver
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