Behind-the-scenes: Rhinoceros Hornbill Breeding

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Behind-the-scenes: Rhinoceros Hornbill Breeding

(Breeding Update: July 2017)

Nashville Zoo is excited to give you a sneak peek into the unqiue breeding and nesting habits of our rhinoceros hornbills via our live Nest Cam. 

Inside our breeding rhinoceros hornbills' building is an old Jack Daniel’s whiskey barrel with three birds. The 37 year old female has been inside since April 12th, and her two chicks are just over a month old, about 5 days apart. They will not be out of the barrel until mid-August. The Nashville Zoo has produced rhino hornbill chicks every year since 2008 and has contributed nearly 18% of the SSP Rhino Hornbills. Learn more about their unique form of breeding, Barrel Breeding, and the development of Rhino Horbill chicks below. 

The Rhinoceros Hornbill is one of 54 species of hornbills that exist. It can be distinguished by its banana-shaped casque on the top of its beak. The casque is made out of keratin, like our fingernails, and is very strong and lightweight.

The Rhinoceros Hornbill faces many challenges which pose serious threats on the species. Along with the global issue of deforestation resulting in a loss of habitat, these birds are hunted as food, and ornaments are made out of their casques and feathers. While the species is not yet considered endangered, it has been decreasing in number. 

The Nashville Zoo is a proud participant in the Rhinoceros Hornbill Species Survival Plan (SSP). SSP programs are captive breeding programs for animals in danger of extinction. These programs help to maintain the genetic diversity of animal populations in the zoo community by developing a comprehensive breeding program and managing their husbandry, conservation and education efforts. 

Barrel Breeding

Rhinoceros Hornbills are cavity nesters, meaning the female hornbill will lay her eggs inside a hollowed out tree. When she is ready to incubate the eggs, she will seal herself inside of the nest cavity with mud and scat, leaving only a small slit to pass food through relying solely on her mate to provide her with food and protection. About three months after the chicks hatch, the female will then break herself out of the tree and begin helping the male by assisting in feeding the growing chicks. Once the chicks are 80 days old, they are fully feathered and ready to leave the nest. 

In the Zoo, hornbill breeding is encouraged by offering a large wooden barrel on a raised platform to simulate a hollow tree trunk. The barrel is modified with a small access door and a mounted infrared camera so that keepers can determine when eggs are laid and for monitoring the growth of the healthy chicks. 

The nest barrel includes a small door for keepers to check in on mom and chick, an opening for the hornbills to use, and an interior camera for keepers to monitor.

Mom and chick in nest barrel

Male rhinoceros hornbill giving food to the female inside the barrel.

Hand Raising a Chick

Nashville Zoo first bred Rhinoceros Hornbills in 2008 and was able to successfully hand raise a chick. When hand raising animals, keepers are often challenged with the task of reducing the risk of imprinting the young bird. Imprinting is when the young animal adopts characteristics of the surrogate parent making it difficult to reintroduce the chick back with its parents or other hornbills. At the Nashville Zoo keepers designed a "hornbill costume" that they wore when feeding the chicks to prevent the birds from imprinting on them. By reducing this human exposure to the chick, Nashville Zoo was able to successfully raise their first male hornbill who was then able to be paired up with a female at another zoo. 

Feeding time!

Growth in the Zoo's Rhinoceros Hornbill Program

In 2010 the breeding pair of hornbills were able to successfully hatch and raise their own chick for the first time. Since then the hornbills have had 1-2 chicks each year, resulting in over 14% of the Rhinoceros Hornbills in the SSP being hatched from the Nashville Zoo.

We look forward to continuing our research and conservation efforts with this beautiful bird. 

Life stages of a Rhinoceros Hornbill

1 month old chick

A few months old

Rhinoceros Hornbill adult
Posted by Nashville Zoo at 12:57 PM