Farmers of the forest

Farmers of the forest

The breeding behaviour of hornbills is not just fascinating, but provides unique insights for humans. Hornbills are believed to pair for life and share parenting responsibility equally.

The nesting period of hornbills spans for three to four months. During this time, the female seals herself in a tree hole on a tall tree in the wet evergreen forests. This tree hole is formed either by a branch breaking off from a tree or when woodpeckers peck the trunk. Once the female enters the cavity, she seals the entrance using her droppings. She leaves a small slip-like opening through which the male can feed her and the chicks.  

Inside the cavity, the female hornbill moults her beautiful feathers. She lays a maximum of two eggs per season. During this period, as she cannot fly, the male hornbill makes sure that she gets all the required nutrients to raise the offspring. Every day, he flies many kilometres to bring her fruits, small snakes and lizards as food. "And if the 'father' hornbill dies during the nesting period, that would mean that the entire family dies of starvation," said H S Shahsidhar, a naturalist with Jungle Lodges and Resorts, Dandeli. He has been monitoring the life and breeding pattern of hornbills for the last 15 years.

Vital role

Unique breeding pattern is not the only feature that these birds with an attractive casque and wide wingspans are known for. They are also known as the 'farmers of forest' for playing a crucial role in dispersing hundreds of fruit tree species in the forests. The presence of hornbills indicates that the forest is not only prosperous but also balanced. This is why hornbills are considered as an indicator species. "Birds play a vital role in maintaining the health of forests," says Divya Mudappa, a scientist with the Mysuru-based Nature Conservation Foundation. She has carried out studies on the breeding pattern and distribution of hornbills of Western Ghats.

Hornbills are large frugivore birds which are efficient seed dispersers as they cover a large area in a day. After feeding, hornbills usually regurgitate or excrete the seeds. A hornbill's home range usually extends to at least 10 km, which means that they can be much more efficient than other smaller frugivores in dispersing seeds at a wider range of territory, says Divya. She adds that the four species of hornbills found in the Western Ghats thrive on nearly 80 varieties of fruits.

India is home to nine of the 54 species of hornbills. In the Western Ghats, one can see the Indian grey hornbill, Malabar grey hornbill, Malabar pied hornbill and the great Indian hornbill. In the forests of Northeast India, one can see the White-throated brown hornbill, rufous-necked hornbill, great Indian hornbill, wreathed hornbill and oriental pied hornbill. Furthermore, Narcondam Island in the Indian Ocean is home to the critically endangered Narcondam hornbills.  

Today, hornbills are threatened by habitat loss, hunting, and loss of large trees that they need for feeding and nesting. Hornbills are a scheduled (I) species under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. In Narcondam Island, which is strategically important for India's defence, some of the military activities could be a threat to Narcondam hornbills and its limited habitat.    

The nest protectors

Researchers and naturalists complain that deforestation, especially cutting of tall trees, has resulted in hornbills now being limited to small patches of forests across India. These include Dandeli region in Karnataka, Anaimalai Hills in Tamil Nadu, and in the protected areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura. "Though there has been a decrease in deforestation in the Western Ghats, we need to be sensitive to the effects of projects in the pipeline that could cause damage to the remaining natural habitats," says Divya. She adds that hunting of these birds has also been arrested to a great extent in most parts of the Western Ghats, which is supporting a stable population of hornbills.

In Arunachal Pradesh, Aparajita Datta, another scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation, is making sure that hunters turn to be the protectors of these majestic birds. Under the 'adopt a hornbill nest' project, funds from various donors ensure that the Nyishi tribal youths are employed to monitor not only the hornbill's nests, but also record their behaviour. The project, which was started in 2011, has begun to show results as the number of youths being hired for this purpose has increased. These 'nest protectors' have also been tasked to mark the tree in which the hornbills are nesting so that no one cuts them for farming activities, timber or firewood.

Even the state governments have been pitching in towards conservation efforts by creating awareness among people and informing them about the importance of hornbills in the local ecosystem. Hornbill Festival is one such activity that has become popular among bird lovers. The Karnataka government is organising Hornbill Festival in Dandeli from February 2 to 4. "Conservation of these magnificent birds and their ecosystem is not the responsibility of only the Forest Department and the government. The birds can coexist only if humans understand them and help them thrive," says Dr S Ramesh, deputy conservator of forests, Haliyal division.

Proper protection to these feathered foresters can not only help them thrive, but help flourish the forest ecosystem as well.

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