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Tracking the farmers of the forest

Among India’s nine hornbill species, the Indian grey hornbills inhabit the plains and thrive in city canopies, underpinning the crucial role of native fruiting avenue trees in urban areas.
Last Updated : 20 August 2023, 03:47 IST

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Our lofty Malabar neem (Melia dubia) trees at Navilu Kaadu are prime real estate for common hawk cuckoos, the odd honey buzzard, solitary black-shouldered kites, flocks of raucous jungle babblers, mynas, and other feathered denizens of the sky. One of them, the Indian grey hornbill (Ocyceros birostris), squeals out its presence at dawn and dusk.

We first spotted a pair in our second year at the farm. They characteristically flapped and glided between the tamarind tree and the siris tree, locally called Baage Mara (Albizia lebbeck). When perching, they clumsily hoisted and crooked their long tails, squawking incessantly, much like creaky metal levers in need of oiling!

The pair left our pooch Zoey with jangled nerves. She raced to the front yard and unleashed her fury, rebuking the birds for trespassing. The garrulous hornbills though, cold-shouldered the tiny fluffball snarling and shaking with unbridled rage.

Soon, Zoey’s worries compounded! Flocks of these bantering banshees started to descend upon Navilu Kaadu infringing on her dominion.

Among India’s nine hornbill species, the Indian grey hornbills inhabit the plains and thrive in city canopies, underpinning the crucial role of native fruiting avenue trees in urban areas. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) slots most of them under the ‘Least Concern’ category. However, this could change, with mounting pressures on forests and rampant tree felling in cities and the countryside. Hornbills get their name from horn-like casques on the anterior of their large, curved beaks. Males sport larger casques than females.

Compared to their dapper cousins — the great hornbills in the Himalayan foothills and the Western Ghats, the striking Malabar pied hornbills of the Western Ghats, the flamboyant Rufous-necked hornbills in Northeast India and the Narcondam hornbills in the Andamans — Indian grey hornbills can seem a tad dowdy, like their cousins, the similarly unadorned, casque-less Malabar grey hornbills of the Western Ghats.

The saga of the hornbill or ‘Mangatte Hakki’ as it is known in Kannada, is riveting and quixotic. These birds are famously monogamous and mate for life. The Indian grey hornbills average 61 cm in length. Great hornbills with their massive casques, can reach an impressive 120 cm or more.

Come summer, mated hornbill pairs get busy scouting for tree cavities to nest in. Once they home in on a nesting spot, the female enters the cavity and seals it with mud pellets reinforced with her own poop. She leaves a longish slit for the male to pass meals, an avian version of ‘Breakfast in Bed’ extending to include all meals. The female then sheds her flight feathers in preparation for a confinement of nearly three months or more and lays eggs. Her devoted mate keeps up a steady supply of gourmet meals of berries, figs, insects, lizards and small mammals, to keep her fed and nourished. He also plies hygiene supplies, in this case, bark pieces, to sop up moisture inside the nest.

Once the eggs hatch, Dad runs ragged to feed his lady and their progeny. If the male dies during this vulnerable period, his helpless family perishes.

As the nestlings grow, there is little wiggle room for the mother in the hollow. She eventually knocks down the wall of the nest and emerges, enrobed in brand new flight feathers. The babies instinctively wall up the nest again allowing for a slit, just like their mum did before birth. The fledglings soon emerge from the nest.

Hornbills are fabled as ‘Farmers of the Forest.’ These largely frugivorous birds are prolific seed dispersers and literally raise entire forests. They gulp down fruits and regurgitate the seeds, scattering them far and wide. Conservationists have been tirelessly educating people living alongside hornbills to save them from excessive hunting and to preserve their habitats. Alarmingly, some Indian hornbill species are classified as ‘Vulnerable’ and ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN.

I worry for our Indian grey hornbills too as many giant banyans around Navilu Kaadu are falling prey to the chainsaw. Two years earlier, we planted three banyan cuttings within our boundary. We persuaded two of our neighbours as well to spare the giant banyans in their fields when we realised their axing was imminent. But hornbills need several more native trees to be able to thrive.

For all her show of unfettered wrath, Zoey too will sorely miss her nemesis should the Indian grey hornbills vanish from Navilu Kaadu’s vicinity altogether.

Rooting For Nature is a monthly column on an off-kilter urban family’s trysts with nature on a natural farm.

The author chipped away at a software marketing career before shifting gears to independent consulting and natural farming. She posts as @ramyacoushik on Instagram. Reach her at bluejaydiaries@gmail.com

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Published 20 August 2023, 03:47 IST

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