The Hornbill Family - Types of Hornbills found in India

A guide to hornbills and where to find in India

Hornbills are one of the most interesting and attractive birds of the tropics and subtropics. They are found in Africa, Asia, and Melanesia. There are about 62 species of hornbills found worldwide out of which nine species found in India. Some of them are metropolitan in distribution and some are restricted to a small island.

Hornbills are mostly identified by their long curvy beaks with a casque over it. Except few species most of them are very colorful. In India they are varied in size from a small Indian Grey Hornbill to the largest Great Hornbill. The hornbills are primarily frugivore but also feed on small mammals, reptiles and small birds. The greatest diversity of Hornbills is found in Western Ghats and North East of India.

1. Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis)

The Great Hornbill, also known as the Great Pied Hornbill, primarily resides in tropical evergreen forests. These majestic birds can be found alone or in groups, their presence influenced by their habitat. They emit resonant calls and create remarkable noise with their wingbeats, enhancing their mystique

Living arboreally, they nest in large tropical trees, showcasing adaptability. They live for 30 to 50 years, weighing up to 4 kilograms, with an impressive 152-centimeter wingspan, aiding them in navigating their forest homes. Inhabiting primary evergreen and moist deciduous forests, especially in hilly areas between 600- and 1,000-meters elevation (occasionally up to 2,000 meters in the Himalayan foothills), they feed in tree canopies, often in pairs or families. While mostly sedentary, they expand their range seasonally for food, gathering in fruiting trees or evening roosts. Occasionally, they descend to the ground for fallen fruits and explore widely, occasionally flying high over open areas, producing a distinct whooshing sound.

Greater Hornbill in India

2. Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus)

A hornbill of medium size, predominantly black and white in coloration, possesses a notably large, yellowish bill adorned with a casque. In males, the bill is predominantly creamy white with a black base, accompanied by an immense casque featuring ivory, yellow, and black hues, protruding prominently at the front. The male also exhibits a red eye encircled by bare black skin. This hornbill species, distinct from the Oriental Pied Hornbill due to its larger size and more substantial head and casque, overlaps in habitat with the latter. In contrast, the female hornbill boasts a bill and casque that are comparatively smaller than those of the male (though still larger than the Oriental Pied Hornbill). The bare skin around her eye appears pale blue, transitioning to pink during the breeding period. Additionally, juvenile hornbills possess a smaller bill devoid of a casque, displaying a plain, dull-yellow coloration.

This species is typically found on the edges of rainforests and in deciduous woodlands, occasionally venturing into more open areas and isolated fruiting trees up to 300 meters elevation. Its diet primarily consists of fruits, with a preference for specific fig species and Putranjiva (Euphobiaceae) during breeding. Additionally, it consumes leaves and opportunistically captures small animal prey like insects and lizards. While it mainly feeds within tree canopies, it occasionally descends to the ground to collect fallen fruits or prey. Although predominantly sedentary, it makes local movements in search of fruiting trees. Small flocks gather at favorable feeding sites or evening roosts, with up to 58 birds observed at a single site.

Malabar Pied Hornbill found in India

3. Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris)

This hornbill species is of medium size, characterized by a predominantly black plumage with white underparts. When in flight, the outer tail tips and trailing wing edges display distinct white markings. In terms of sexual dimorphism, the male hornbill features a sizable creamy-colored bill with a substantial black base on the lower mandible. Its casque is notably large and cylindrical, projecting forward with a compressed anterior part that is marked black.

Conversely, the female of this species possesses a smaller bill and casque, both marked with black, and lacks the anterior blade observed in males. A distinctive feature of the female is a dark red spot on the lower mandible. In both sexes, the area around the eyes and on the throat is characterized by pale blue bare skin.

During the juvenile stage, this hornbill exhibits a less glossy black plumage. The bill is smaller and pale, lacking the developed casque seen in mature individuals, highlighting the characteristic differences as they age and mature.

Except for the Indian Grey Hornbill, this Asian hornbill species does not rely on primary forests for habitat, including breeding. It is found in closed deciduous or evergreen forests but prefers forest edges, open woodlands, coastal and riverine scrub, and cultivated areas. Its habitat ranges from coastal lowlands to elevations of up to 700 meters inland. Particularly in Southeast Asia, it can be observed up close, often visiting feeding tables in beach resorts and villages near forested regions, where it feeds on fruits like papaya, rambutan, mango, and banana.

While its primary diet consists of fruits, it also consumes various animals, including insects, centipedes, millipedes, scorpions, spiders, snails, earthworms, lizards, small birds and their eggs, and occasionally rats, snails, crabs, and fish. It mainly forages in tree canopies but also descends to the ground to collect fallen fruits or prey. This hornbill uses its large bill with precision to grab, tear, and swallow small food items. It typically moves in pairs or family groups, displaying sedentary and territorial behavior.

Oriental Pied Hornbill found in India

4. Indian Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros birostris)

This hornbill species is relatively small and exhibits a brownish-grey plumage. It shares a resemblance with the Malabar Grey Hornbill, particularly in the western regions where their ranges overlap. The key distinguishing feature lies in its black bill, which lacks the yellow coloration and casque observed in the Malabar Grey Hornbill. Additionally, this hornbill has a long, graduated tail with a black base transitioning to a white tip.

In regions where it coexists with the Malabar Pied Hornbill, this species stands apart due to its smaller size and absence of distinct pied plumage. The Malabar Pied Hornbill, in contrast, is larger and sports a prominent white casque with a black patch. Among the sexes, the male of this hornbill species features a narrow black casque with a pointed front and red-brown eyes surrounded by black orbital skin. The female, smaller in size, possesses a less pronounced casque and dark brown eyes encircled by dull red orbital skin. This species is known for its vocal and noisy nature, particularly during the early morning hours. Its calls consist of a variety of loud cackling and squealing notes, occasionally punctuated by short piping sounds.

This species is found in deciduous forests, open woodlands, thorn forests, rural cultivation, and urban gardens, especially where fig trees are abundant. It primarily inhabits lowland plains up to 600 meters elevation, occasionally reaching 1,400 meters in the Himalayan foothills. When overlapping with the Malabar Grey Hornbill, it prefers lower, more open areas. Its diet primarily consists of fruits, especially figs, and occasionally includes flowers. It supplements its diet with animal prey such as insects, small reptiles, rodents, and bird nestlings.

Indian Grey Hornbill sitting on branch of a tree

5. Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus)

A small grey hornbill with a rufous vent, distinguished from the similar Indian Grey Hornbill by its yellow bill (not black). In regions where it coexists with the Indian Grey Hornbill, this species prefers higher terrain with dense tree cover. It also overlaps with the larger, pied Malabar Pied Hornbill. Males have long, curved yellow-orange bills with a low casque, while females are smaller with dark-spotted casques and black lower mandibles. Both sexes feature a white supercilium stripe above the eyes and whitish streaks on the head, crest, throat, and upper breast. Juveniles resemble adult females but with smaller, paler bills and no casque.

his hornbill primarily inhabits evergreen and deciduous forests, especially riverine forests and hills above 500 meters elevation, occasionally venturing into nearby cultivated areas and villages for food. Its diet consists mainly of fruits and berries, with a small portion of animal food such as insects, reptiles, and rodents. The species exhibits a sedentary behavior but may move locally, especially within deciduous forest regions. Groups of up to 20 individuals may gather at favorable feeding sites, displaying a distinctive flying pattern characterized by strong flapping, gliding, and hopping among branches and large fruiting trees.

Malabar Grey Hornbill found in India

6. Narcondam Hornbill (Rhyticeros narcondami)

Resembling a miniature version of the Papuan Hornbill in both structure and coloration, this species features adult males with rufous heads, females with entirely black heads and necks, and juvenile individuals of both sexes resembling adult males. It is the sole hornbill species within its range.

This hornbill is predominantly found in evergreen and deciduous forests, occupying open mixed forests and dense bushes from the coast to the island’s summit at 700 meters elevation. Its habitat covers most of the island except for grassy slopes in the south and southeast. The species is sedentary and primarily feeds on fruiting trees, with 33 plant species identified as food sources, including figs. However, during the breeding season, 73% of its diet comprises non-fig species. Additionally, small animals such as geckos, skinks, spiders, mantids, land crabs, and snakes are part of its diet. Feeding parties comprising up to 50 birds have been observed.

Adults tend to roost in pairs below 255 meters above sea level, while immatures roost in groups of 3-7 per branch at higher altitudes, although their roost sites change regularly.

Narcondam Hornbill in India

7. Wreathed Hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus)

This distinctive hornbill species, distinguishable from the Plain-pouched Hornbill, has notable features: males have a brown cap and ivory-white nape (not bright yellow), a bill with low casque and ridges, and a black band across the yellow pouch. Females exhibit brown ridges on a white bill and a black band across the blue pouch. Juveniles resemble adult males but lack the casque.

Their call consists of short grunts used for contact or roars, audible up to 1 km, quieter when wet. Found in primary rainforests up to 2,560 m elevation, they feed on high forest fruits. They consume various fruits, including figs, and minimal animal food except during breeding, where prey includes eggs, reptiles, insects, and crabs. Although mainly canopy dwellers, they occasionally descend for fallen fruit or prey. While sedentary, they travel for food, especially during fruiting seasons. Breeding pairs have a 10 km² range, expanding to 28 km² in non-breeding periods, gathering in flocks of up to 1,000 birds in communal roosts.

Wreathed Hornbill found in India

8. Rufous Necked Hornbill (Aceros nipalensis)

This hornbill species stands out due to its vivid colors: glossy black wings with a white trailing edge, black mantle, and upper half of the tail, while the rest of the tail is white. The male features a rufous head, neck, and underparts, along with a pale ivory bill with black grooves on the upper mandible. Its turquoise blue orbital skin connects to cobalt blue cheeks, and it has a scarlet red pouch with a dark blue line, making it easily distinguishable within its range. Females are entirely black but can be identified by blue bare skin around the eye, a red pouch, and heavy black stripes on the upper mandible without a visible casque. Juveniles resemble adult males but are paler and have smaller bills without grooves, with the number of grooves indicating their age.

This hornbill emits a mellow yet powerful series of descending cooing notes resembling cuckoos or pigeons.

This species inhabits primary evergreen and deciduous forests, favoring remote forested ridges and hillsides in the 600-1,800 m elevation range. Its foraging areas include watercourses in hill evergreen forests. It primarily feeds on fruits, with a diet comprising 25 identified animal prey, predominantly crabs, snakes, cicadas, and frogs. While it mostly feeds inside canopies, it occasionally ventures to the ground, especially near creeks. The hornbill is likely sedentary and territorial, often moving in pairs or small family groups of 4-5 birds, occasionally forming larger groups of up to 15 individuals.

Rufous Necked Hornbill found in Inida

9. Austen’s Brown Hornbill (Anorrhinus austeni)

This medium-sized hornbill features dark brown plumage with rufous underparts, wings, and tail tipped white. The male has whitish cheeks and throat, a creamy bill, and casque. The female, on the other hand, has darker brown underparts with dark cheeks and throat, along with an ivory white bill and a smaller casque. Both genders have blue rings of naked skin around their eyes. Juveniles resemble adult males but have paler brown-tipped feathers, a short yellow bill, orange skin around the eyes, and molt into adult plumage at around a year old.

Their call, reminiscent of the Bushy-crested Hornbill but less harsh, consists of loud repeated screams, croaks, and chuckles.

These hornbills inhabit closed forests, both evergreen and deciduous, from lowlands to lower montane regions with pines and oaks, primarily in lower hills. Recorded up to 1,000 meters elevation in India, they live in social groups of 2-15 birds, occasionally reaching up to 50 individuals. They move through the forest at canopy level and actively feed inside or just below the canopy. Their diet consists mainly of fruits, supplemented by animal prey, including various arthropods, snails, earthworms, as well as vertebrates like bats, snakes, lizards, and bird chicks and eggs. Sedentary and territorial, their breeding group’s home range averages 4.3-5.9 km², with no significant movements except for immature individuals dispersing. During the non-breeding season, roosting groups of up to 80 birds can be observed.

Austen’s Brown Hornbill found in India