January 29, 2010

Cry from the Ghats

Print edition : February 06, 2015

The Great Indian Hornbill. Photo: N.A. Naseer

In flight. It has a nooisy wingbeat, which is audible from a distance. Photo: Mohan Thomas

Found in the dense emerald patches of the Western Ghats, the bird is also known as the bird of the heavy rainforest. Photo: N.A. NASEER

Salim Ali. He observed the great Indian hornbill in 1933 Kerala. Photo: x sdfsadfsd

VISUALLY striking and blade sharp, the horn-shaped bill is a powerful protective device for this enormous bird, the great Indian hornbill.

Found in the dense emerald patches of the Western Ghats, the bird is also known as the bird of the heavy rainforest. The nesting period, when the chicks and their mother are confined to their nest in a cavity in a giant tree trunk, is literally a time of trial by fire for the male bird. Nature has thrust upon it the mantle of a guardian angel protecting the nest. During this period it is extremely alert. Even when it goes far in search of food, its heart throbs resound in the nest. Honey collectors and people living in the hills look out for the nests, for the flesh of hornbill chicks as well as that of the bird is considered a delicacy. Any chirping in the nest can be fatal for the family. The men looking out for chicks climb up to the nests, carrying crude weapons and also torches even in broad daylight. The hornbill is scared of torches because they can damage its plumage.

When the nest is in danger, the male bird, risking its own life, stands up to the intruders, attacking them with its sharp bills. It sometimes leaves the men badly injured, but then the bird, too, can get killed by the men. In the latter case, the men carry home the dead bird’s casque (bill surrounded by a cumbersome-looking structure) and use it to decorate homes.

Dr N.C. Induchoodan, former Divisional Forest Officer, Vazhachal, one of the habitats of the great Indian hornbill, recalls: “When I saw the telling scars on the bodies of some tribal persons, I asked what caused them. They said the marks were left by encounters with the great Indian hornbill when they tried to snatch the chicks.” Vazhachal is around 80 kilometres from Kochi. It was here that a massive campaign was started by the Forest Department in 2003, for the first time in Kerala, with the participation of the tribal people there, for the protection of all varieties of hornbills. Induchoodan, along with his colleagues, played a key role. Twelve nests were identified in the Vazhachal area and tribal people were deployed to watch them. These people, who had been hornbill-hunters, thus turned into hornbill-watchers. The campaign worked and the conservation project succeeded.

Though hornbills are numerically weak, there are 45 types of the bird in Africa, India, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. There are seven types in India, of which the great Indian hornbill is the largest. Four species are found in the Western Ghats. They are the great Indian hornbill (great pied hornbill – Buceros bicornis), the Malabar pied hornbill, the Malabar grey hornbill and the common grey hornbill. Their status is endangered, according to Dr R. Kannan, who holds a PhD in Ecology and Conservation of Hornbills in the Western Ghats. “Large-scale habitat destruction, forest fragmentation and poaching of adults and squabs caused their endangered status,” he said about the birds. Hornbills are seen in the forests of Wayanad, Parambikulam, Silent Valley, Periyar, Nelliyampathy, Neyyar and up to Ashambu hills.

Ornithologists say that though hornbills are not really beautiful, they are attractive, intriguing and fascinating. The legendary ornithologist Salim Ali observed the great Indian hornbill in 1933 in Kerala. Captivated by the bird, he remarked, “I certainly think that one of the most thrilling and grotesque characters in Kerala is the great Indian hornbill. It is seen in the evergreen forest patches in other parts of Asia also. Few people even in India have any but the haziest notion of the area which for natural variety and charm can vie with the most celebrated beauty spots of our land.”

Just one year before his death in 1987, Salim Ali visited the Thattekkad bird sanctuary. His purpose was to revive old memories. (He said, “I had seen in 1933 large groups of great Indian hornbills in Thattekkad and Periyar.”) He was 92 and walked with the help of a walking stick. Travelling in a jeep, with binoculars in hand, he anxiously searched for the great Indian hornbill but could see not even one. Sadly, he said, “The tall trees have disappeared. So naturally the hornbills are not seen. In Periyar I saw a group numbering from 90 to 110. A most unforgettable experience.”

Great Indian hornbills have a noisy wingbeat, which is audible from a distance. One ornithologist has described it thus: “If you hear a loud woosh that sounds in the distance exactly like the chuffing of an old steam locomotive, it could unmistakably be the great Indian hornbill.” Salim Ali’s description in his book Birds of Kerala is: “Their deep grunts, roars or barks and loud resonance call reverberate in the forest-clad valleys and are responsible for the Malayalam name Malamuzhakki, meaning mountain shaking. It is a large pied bird. Its face is black, neck and tail white, wings black, two white bands on the wings are conspicuous in flight.”

The great Indian hornbill, which unlike the woodpecker and the barbet cannot chisel out cavities in tree trunks, nests in natural cavities in the trunks of giant trees. Such hollows are used by generations of birds. When a new hollow is formed on a tree, the bird gets wind of it.

Before occupying a new cavity, the birds clean it out, sometimes for as long as a month, before the female moves in. The cavities must be big enough to hold the bird. The great Indian hornbill is an enormous bird, around 130 centimetres from tail to bill. It weighs about three kilograms, but its feathers make it look heavier. The nest must be big enough to allow the bird to turn around, stretch its body occasionally and hold the casque straight. It is usually at a height of 15 metres to 21 metres above the ground.

After the eggs are hatched, the female bird is a virtual prisoner in the dark interior of the nest, which is sealed with mud and the birds’ own excreta. There is only a narrow slit left for the female bird to take its bill out when the male comes with food. The seal can be broken open only from the outside with the male bird’s help. So if the male bird is killed or wounded, its mate and the chicks starve to death inside because there is no way for food to reach them and they cannot come out. Normally, other hornbills do not come to the rescue of the trapped birds.

The nesting season usually stretches from February to April. After the chicks are born, it takes more than a month for them to go out flying. Sometimes, giant squirrels occupy the nests after the chicks fly out. The tribal people, who are familiar with the interiors of the forests, say that there are enough hollows in giant trees to house all the hornbills. If the entrance to a hollow or cavity is not wide enough, the great Indian hornbill may stretch its body, press down the wings and squeeze into it. Sometimes, the bird gets its plumage ruffled in the process.

The bird has a calm temperament, but during the nesting period it is extremely alert. Sometimes it returns to the same place the next year, but it abandons the site if there is any sign of human disturbance.

Asked if he had ever seen more than one nest in a tree, R. Sugathan, prominent ornithologist and a disciple of Salim Ali, answered that he had not. Usually, there is only one cavity big enough to house a hornbill nest in a tree. But other birds that nest in hollows of trees, such as woodpeckers and barbets, are seen nesting on the branches of a tree where the great Indian hornbill has a nest. There is peaceful coexistence because hornbills are sociable birds.

R. Kannan says, “Great Indian hornbills seem to be in jeopardy in Palni Hills as it has been ravaged for development projects. But Chalakkudy (Vazhachal), Periyar, Kalakkad and Anamalai could be promising strongholds of the great Indian hornbill. Efforts are to be encouraged for their conservation and protection.”

R. Sunder Raju, Chief Wildlife Warden of Tamil Nadu, says that efforts to protect the great Indian hornbill are on in full swing with tribal participation.

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