Helping Hornbills

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Private guide Tayla McCurdy recently had the opportunity to get her hands dirty while learning a bit more about Ground Hornbill conservation and the challenges of ensuring this turkey-like bird has the best survival opportunity. Below is her #TripReport:

On Sunday, the 4th of October 2020 I was fortunate enough to join the team at APNR (Associated Private Nature Reserve) Southern Ground Hornbill Project on an expedition to the Timbavati. The purpose of this trip was to remove an old nest and to put up a new one in an existing territory of a flock of ground hornbills.

Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) seen on safari.

If you’re wondering what the fuss is all about and why these guys are special, Southern Ground-Hornbills are large unique birds, endemic to Africa and are also the world’s largest cooperatively breeding birds, standing at around one meter tall and weighing around 3.5 – 4.5 kilograms. Groups usually consist of three to five individuals but can go up to 12 in a group. Within each of these groups, there is an alpha pair, which are followed by several “helpers” consisting of male offspring from previous years, as well as the occasional dispersal birds. Female birds other than the alpha female are seldom tolerated within groups and are often chased out at a young age. The “helpers” contribute towards a variety of group behaviours including foraging, predator vigilance, territory defence, and reproduction. For more on their biology you can read here

Due to habitat loss, persecution and ideal nesting sites being impacted by elephants, the team at APNR Southern Ground Hornbill Project which is run by the Fitz Patrick Institute of African Ornithology, have been helping these slow breeding birds out for the last 20 years. There is an astounding amount of research being done on this endangered species in the Greater Kruger, I was delighted to hear about the positive outcome of the work they are doing.

Kyle Middleton and Carrie Hickman are both researchers, Kyle is doing his PhD and focusing on cooperative breeding behaviour, which bird contributes and how much to the following functions: territory defence and nest provisioning. While Carrie is completing her Masters and focusing on how high temperatures effect nestling growth and physiology.

 

 

I jumped in the vehicle with them and we headed off to the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. It didn’t take us long before we reached the Weeping boerbean tree (Schotia brachypetala). This was the chosen tree that the nest would be put in. Kyle headed up to the main fork of the tree, he trimmed a couple of small branches to that the nest would fit. I had absolutely no idea how they were planning on getting the nest that weighed about 40kg and made of a polystyrene M1 composite. These artificial nests are vitally important as ideal nesting sites are hard to come by and since this project started they have documented that the birds seem to be breeding more regularly than in the Kruger National Park. Typically breeding only every 9 years, in the APNR reserve they have seen an increase to every 3-4 years and there is one pair of SGH that are breeding seasonally-which is fantastic! These birds only mature at an age of about 7 years old (give or take) and making it to independence is challenging. After about a year or so the females leave the family while the males stay behind and get looked after by the rest of the flock. No one is entirely sure what happens to the females but the likelihood is that they don’t make it to adulthood due to predation.

This particular group of hornbills were using a fallen over tree on the ground with a massive cavity inside it as a nesting site, they stopped using it so the team decided to place an artificial nest not too far away from the old nest site within their territory. I was told they tend to locate the nests fairly quickly- fingers crossed!

Now it was time to get down to business and get the nest into the tree! It dawned on me later as I helped unravel many ropes that it was not Kyle and Nic that would somehow carry the nest up the tree using the ladder but in fact it would be hoisted upward with the help of their trusty vehicle. Various ropes were tied around the nest and a long rope tossed over the thickest branch to be used as a pulley system.

To my amazement, this was the easiest part of the project. The tricky bit came in when Kyle spent almost an hour and a half trying to wedge the nest into the fork of the tree. Some smaller wooden poles were used to wedge it in nice and snug. Finally it was time to undo all the ropes and pack it all up, Carrie did say she was thrilled I was there to help untangle and round up all the ropes- this is the most tedious task.

I learnt so much about the behind the scene work that is being done by the researchers. Their jobs aren’t as glamorous as they seem, much blood, sweat and I can only imagine the occasional tears is what goes in to being a conservationist. I cannot thank you two enough for putting up with me and answering all the questions I had. I can happily say that my knowledge about hornbills in general has increased by ten fold!

I’ll happily give up all my free days to be apart of projects like this, next time guys, sundowners on me!

 

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If you are ever in the Greater Kruger area and you’d like to get involved, check out their How To Help or if you want to join Tayla on a safari for a chance to learn these amazing creatures have a look here

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