The Great Indian Hornbill

The Great Indian Hornbill

Among the birds that face great challenges in rearing their young, the hornbill stands out. With its massive, cow-horn-like beak and the unique casque that covers part of its beak from the head, the hornbill is easily recognizable. Globally, there are around 45 species of hornbills, with about eight species found in India. In Assam, the two common species are the Great Hornbill and the Oriental Pied Hornbill, also known locally as Pakoi Dhora or Kaw Hornbill. The Great Hornbill is the largest among them. The prominent horn-like structure on its beak has earned it the English name ‘Hornbill’. This large, powerful beak is used by hornbills only for essential tasks, and contrary to popular belief, the casque is not solid but rather hollow.

A unique aspect of the hornbill’s life is the process from laying eggs to raising the chicks. During this period, both the male and female hornbills endure immense hardship and sacrifice. Hornbills build nests solely for laying eggs, often finding suitable tree cavities or holes. Their nest-building method is quite remarkable. After the female enters the cavity to lay eggs, the male seals the entrance with mud, leaving a small opening through which the female can only extend her beak. This seal hardens upon drying. Through the small opening, the female lays eggs, incubates them, and raises the chicks for about 110-120 days.

During this time, it is the male hornbill’s responsibility to provide food for the female and later for the chicks. The male tirelessly searches for food, often neglecting its own needs, leading to a significant loss of body weight, while the female remains inside, becoming increasingly weak. The male typically gathers various fruits and regurgitates them through the small opening for the female. A single male hornbill can carry up to sixty small to large fruits in its beak and stomach at a time to feed the female inside. The female, signaling with her beak through the opening, requests food, and the male responds accordingly.

When the chicks grow bigger, the female breaks the seal and emerges. After emerging, her feathers take time to regrow. A tragic aspect is if the male hornbill is killed while the female is sealed inside the nest, both the female and the chicks will perish without food. Reflect on the sacrifices of these parents.

English Name: The Great Indian Hornbill
Scientific Name: Buceros bicornis
Local Names: Raj Dhanesh, Bor Dhanesh

Oriental Pied Hornbill

English Name: Large Pied Hornbill
Scientific Name: Anthracoceros malabaricus
Local Names: Pakoi Dhora, Tektaki, Kaw Dhanesh, Dhekdeki, Pakor Dhora, Hetekteki, Soru Dhanesh
Order: Coraciformes
Family: Bucerotidae

The hornbill holds significant importance. It is revered by various religious communities around the world. In Nagaland, it is an

inseparable part of their culture, leading to the establishment of the Hornbill Festival, a traditional celebration in Nagaland. Similarly, the Karbi community highly respects this bird. In Karbi, it is known as “Wot-cerang,” where “Wot” means bird and “cerang” is a clan name, indicating the bird’s association with the Cerang clan. In their culture, hornbills are considered the ancestors of the Cerang clan. Therefore, it is forbidden to harm or consume this bird, as doing so is deemed a sin.


The Great Indian Hornbill (Buceros bicornis)

  • Known for its distinctive large beak and casque.
  • Found in India, with Assam hosting two common species: the Great Hornbill and the Oriental Pied Hornbill.
  • Undergoes a unique nesting process where the female is sealed inside the nest to protect her and the eggs, relying on the male to provide food.

Cultural Significance:

  • Revered in Nagaland and Karbi cultures.
  • Integral to Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival.
  • Considered ancestral in Karbi traditions, particularly within the Cerang clan.

This remarkable bird’s life cycle and cultural importance highlight the intricate relationship between nature and human traditions.

The Indian Hornbill, also known as the Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris), is a fascinating bird with distinct characteristics:

Physical Characteristics:

  1. Size and Shape: Indian Grey Hornbills are medium-sized birds, measuring around 61-68 cm in length. They have a long tail and a prominent casque on the upper mandible.
  2. Coloration: They are primarily grey with a light grey to white belly. Their wings are darker grey, and they have a distinct black casque and bill.
  3. Bill: The bill is large and curved with a casque on top. The color of the bill can vary from yellow to greyish.


  1. Diet: Indian Grey Hornbills are omnivorous. They feed on a variety of fruits, insects, small reptiles, and sometimes small mammals.
  2. Foraging: They are known for their unique method of foraging, often seen hopping from branch to branch in search of food.
  3. Social Structure: These birds are generally seen in pairs or small family groups. They are social birds and communicate with a range of calls.


  1. Range: The Indian Grey Hornbill is found across the Indian subcontinent, including India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
  2. Habitat: They prefer deciduous forests, open woodland, and urban areas with plenty of large trees for nesting.


  1. Nesting: They nest in tree cavities. The female seals herself inside the cavity using a mixture of mud, droppings, and fruit pulp, leaving only a small slit through which the male feeds her.
  2. Breeding Season: Their breeding season typically spans from March to June.
  3. Chick Rearing: The female stays inside the cavity until the chicks are ready to fledge, relying on the male to bring food.

Conservation Status:

  • Threats: Habitat loss and fragmentation are significant threats to the Indian Grey Hornbill population.
  • Conservation Efforts: Efforts to conserve their habitats and ensure the protection of large, mature trees are crucial for their survival.

These characteristics make the Indian Grey Hornbill a unique and important part of the ecosystems they inhabit. Their presence is often an indicator of the health of the environment.

Identification Tips

General Characteristics

  • Size and Shape: Indian Hornbills are medium to large-sized birds with long tails and prominent casques on their upper mandibles.
  • Bill: They have large, curved bills with a casque, which can vary in color and size depending on the species and sex.
  • Plumage: The coloration ranges from grey to black, with some species having bright yellow or white markings.
  • Call: Hornbills have distinctive calls that vary by species, often loud and resonant.

Species-Specific Identification

  1. Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris)
    • Size: About 61-68 cm in length.
    • Coloration: Grey body with a lighter belly and darker wings. The bill is grey with a blackish casque.
    • Habitat: Deciduous forests, urban areas, and open woodlands.
    • Call: A series of harsh, cackling notes.
  2. Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis)
    • Size: About 95-130 cm in length.
    • Coloration: Bright yellow and black bill and casque, with a white neck and underparts. The wings have black and white bands.
    • Habitat: Evergreen and moist deciduous forests.
    • Call: A deep, resonant “kak-kak-kak.”
  3. Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus)
    • Size: About 65-85 cm in length.
    • Coloration: Black body with a white belly and tail. The bill is yellow with a black casque.
    • Habitat: Dry deciduous forests and forest edges.
    • Call: A loud, harsh “kok-kok-kok.”

Birdwatching Hotspots in India

  1. Kaziranga National Park, Assam
    • Known for: Indian Grey Hornbill, Great Hornbill
    • Best Time to Visit: November to April
  2. Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala
    • Known for: Great Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill
    • Best Time to Visit: September to March
  3. Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka
    • Known for: Indian Grey Hornbill, Malabar Pied Hornbill
    • Best Time to Visit: October to May
  4. Manas National Park, Assam
    • Known for: Indian Grey Hornbill, Great Hornbill
    • Best Time to Visit: October to April
  5. Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, Kerala
    • Known for: Malabar Grey Hornbill
    • Best Time to Visit: November to February