The rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) 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 hornbill can live up to 35 years and can be found in Southeast Asia.
Rhinoceros hornbills are cavity nesters, meaning the female hornbill will lay 1-3 eggs inside a hollowed out tree. The female seals herself and her eggs inside the tree, using mud and scat to close the opening, leaving only a small slit for the male to pass food through to her. The female stays inside the nest for 3 months incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks once they hatch.
The rhinoceros hornbill is classified as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN and faces many challenges in the wild. 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.
Here, at Nashville Zoo
The Nashville Zoo is a proud participant in the Rhinoceros Hornbill Species Survival Plan (SSP) and over the last decade has become the most prolific producer of rhinoceros hornbills in the United States. The Zoo’s avian keepers are leaders in rhinoceros hornbill care and have developed successful breeding methods that have been shared with institutions worldwide. The Zoo has produced 1-2 chicks every year since 2008, resulting in over 18% of the hornbills in the SSP being hatched from the Nashville Zoo.
At 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 monitor the growth of the healthy chicks.
Nashville Zoo first bred rhinoceros hornbills in 2008. This chick was the first in the nation to be successfully artificially incubated and hand raised. The Zoo’s keepers went to great lengths to avoid 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.) 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, the chick was able to be paired up with a female at another zoo.
In 2010, the Zoo’s hornbills were able to successfully hatch and raise their own chick for the first time since their arrival at Nashville Zoo. Even though the Zoo had successfully hand raised chicks in the past, but it is more beneficial for the parents to rear the offspring themselves because it produces strong healthy chicks that are exposed to all hornbill behaviors. Having parent-reared chicks also increases the chances that the chicks themselves will be successful parents one day.
In 2017, the Zoo hatched its 14th and 15th rhinoceros hornbill chicks. The Zoo is currently home to six rhinoceros hornbills, including the two you can see on exhibit along Bamboo Trail. The Zoo’s avian team looks forward to continuing our research and conservation efforts with this beautiful bird.
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A view of a hen and chick from the infared camera inside the barrel.
Keepers wore this costume when feeding hand-reared chicks to help avoid imprinting.
A look through the feeding slit at a hen and chick inside the barrel.
Male rhinoceros hornbill giving food to the female inside the barrel.