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Von der Decken Hornbill at Roger Williams Park Zoo Rainforest exhibit

Rainforest Animal at the Zoo: Von der Decken Hornbill

By Roger Williams Park Zoo

If you are a fan of the Disney movie The Lion King then you probably are aware of one of the movie’s most endearing characters – Zazu a Von der Decken Hornbill. Like the movie Zazu, the Von der Decken hornbill at the Roger Williams Park Zoo is named Zazu and is full of personality. Zazu is a great ambassador for both the Zoo and his species, going into classrooms to visit with students to help them learn about hornbills in the wild.

The Von der Decken hornbill is native to eastern Africa occupying parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania. They live in arid, dry environments including savannas, scrublands and the open bush. In the wild they may eat the diet of an omnivore including insects, birds, lizards, small mammals, fruit, and seeds. At the Zoo the vet staff and keepers ensure that Zazu eats a healthy and well-balanced diet which often includes fruit, crickets, mealworms, and possibly small mice.

Von der Decken Hornbill at Roger Williams Park Zoo Rainforest exhibit
Zazu, a Von der Decken Hornbill at Roger Williams Park Zoo

Zazu and his counterparts in the wild are around two feet, with a long bill which allows the hornbill to forage and collect food items from branches that he may otherwise not be able to reach. The hornbill’s short, broad, and rounded wings are efficient for short intervals of flight. Males are larger, have a more colorful orange beak with white/ivory tip, white chest, while the females are smaller, with a white chest and black beak.

One of the most interesting aspects of this species is the unique breeding habits. The male finds a tree cavity and entices the female by bringing her mudding material and food gifts. Females do the mudding using dirt and feces, which will then turn rock-hard when dried.

Females enter the cavity before mudding up the entrance leaving open a slim entrance. For over 2 months the male will feed trapped females and chicks (once born) through the small vertical slit. Females will lay between 2-4 eggs. Females break out about 2 weeks before the young. When chicks emerge, they are fully flighted, though parents will continue to offer food for another week. Chicks emerge at about 50 days old.

On the savannahs of east Africa this bird has a mutually beneficial relationship with the dwarf mongoose – Africa’s smallest carnivore. The tiny mammals flush out insects for the hornbill to eat while the hornbills warn of approaching predators. This allows the mongoose to focus on food. Sadly, the hornbill population is decreasing due to loss of large trees that are suitable for nesting – but still have a good size population.

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