Hornbill Happenings: Surprises From Nature

After leaving the artificial nest box, Sada and Lili moved o to a natural tree cavity in Mount Emily. There, Dennis and Emily were born in April 2010.

I consider myself privileged to encounter biodiversity every day in the course of my work. Even so, I always look forward to my experiences with wildlife – especially with hornbills, which I find fascinating and intriguing. Two years ago, disaster nearly struck along Turnhouse Road near Changi Village, when I came across a baby Oriental Pied Hornbill in the middle of my cycling path. The newly fledged hornbill fluttered its wings as I quickly slammed on the brakes. Unharmed, it took off towards a tree where it was joined by two other adult birds, likely its parents. I shudder to think that I could have accidentally run over the baby hornbill.

A Hornbill History
The Oriental Pied Hornbill is common in Southeast Asia.  In the mid-1800s, it disappeared from Singapore, possibly due to hunting and loss of suitable habitat.  Years later, in 1994, a pair was recorded from Pulau Ubin.  Once thought to be extinct in Singapore, the bird is re-establishing healthy colonies here, thanks to the Singapore Hornbill Project.  This project is a research collaboration of NParks, Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Avian Conservation Project.  There are now about 100 Oriental Pied Hornbills in Singapore. About 60 of them can be found on Pulau Ubin and the nearby Changi Village.

I had another memorable – and more pleasant – encounter on Good Friday this year. I was cycling along the same road when I heard a loud squawking noise overhead. I saw two Oriental Pied Hornbills on a majestic Shorea heritage tree, with a 3-metre girth. At a height of about 26m, the male – later named Shor – was depositing small fruits into a tree cavity. Sometimes, Shor completely disappeared into the cavity, which must have been rather deep to accommodate a big bird with a wing span of around 1m. He would emerge with bits of plant material in his bill.

Rea, the female hornbill, hung around watchfully.  (Perhaps she was supervising Shor in his housekeeping efforts.)  She would fly towards the tree, but not enter the cavity. The two hornbills would fly away, then return and repeat the same activities. Shor and Rea, at the magnificent old Shorea tree near Changi Village. Rea's bill is peeking out from the tree cavity.

That was the first time I had seen a male hornbill depositing food into a tree cavity for storage, perhaps to attract his mate into the cavity to breed.  This seemed unusual as the hornbill breeding season, which is around December to April, was already coming to an end.

Hornbills pair for life and have an unusual breeding behaviour. The female hornbill seals herself into the nest box for 90 days or more when breeding. While confined, she depends on the male to return daily to feed her and the chicks. In this respect, hornbills are good icons for family values such as loyalty and responsibility.

Hornbills generally nest in natural tree holes.  In Singapore, where such tree holes are limited in the wild, we provide them with special “housing” in the form of artificial nest boxes. These aim to nudge the hornbills towards mating. (Read more about the nest boxes here and here.)

The magnificent tree in Mount Emily, where the hornbill chicks Dennis and Emily were hatched.

In 2008, a pair of captive hornbills was released into the wild for breeding.  Up till then, Sada, 21, and Lili, 11 had been in captivity in Jurong Bird Park for several years.  We waited with bated breath when they laid their eggs in the nest box in January 2009.  A month later, two chicks hatched, and we named them Angel and Bobby. My joy and relief was comparable to that of a newborn baby’s parents!

Lili returned to the nest box a few months later, and a third chick, Christine, hatched in June. With two successful clutches recorded in the same year, Sada and Lili marked a milestone for the research of Oriental Pied Hornbills.

Mother Nature continues to surprise us with her ability to adapt.  In Feb 2010, Sada and Lili left the “luxury” of their high-floor, condo-style nest box for a natural tree cavity in Mount Emily.  The result was Dennis and Emily, another pair of newborns which fledged in early April 2010.  In early May 2011, another chick fledged from the same tree cavity. We named this chick “Freedom”, in alphabetical order after its older siblings.

Sada watches protectively over the firstborn chicks, Angel and Bobby.

Since then, Sada and Lili have not been seen breeding in any of the area’s artificial nest boxes. Their offspring have also left the proverbial nest. Angel and Christine have ventured off to find their own homes and are no longer seen with their parents.

Bobby was relocated to Sungei Buloh, where he is often seen with Serene. She is older, but may one day become his lifelong mate.

Bobby was relocated to Sungei Buloh in January 2010, where he is often seen flying with Serene, a female from Pulau Ubin.  We hope that when they are of age, they will mate and set up their own family – the next generation of Singapore’s Oriental Pied Hornbills.

By Wong Tuan Wah, as told to Jancy Yeo
Photos by Wong Tuan Wah

Footnote: In 2013, Bobby and Serene had their first clutch of chicks.

Total Comments: 33

Samar Sen 10/23/2014 10:59:51 AM

A cheeky Hornbill wakes us up every day at around 7.30am by knocking on our balcony glass door with its beak. Is not afraid of us at all, but we leave it alone. If we should leave out some food, let us know what to leave out. We feel special to have this visitor. We have taken some fun video and photos, so let us know where and how to post.

Steve whorf 1/3/2016 9:10:34 PM

Had 6 of them today in the trees directly outside our fifth floor condo in Holland Village. Put out a bunch of grapes and they demolished them and moved on. This is probably a single local troupe as I had three in the same trees about one year ago

Audrey Lee 8/11/2014 6:13:56 PM

Just this morning around 745 am (11 Aug 2014) my husband and I spotted three of these gorgeous birds at our Pasir Ris Condo, they were eating fruits from palm trees. One of them even chased a bat away from the tree.

Mizi 8/5/2014 5:48:44 PM

I saw a pair just outside of thomson rd. Chancery Lane. I've got a few pics of them. They managed to catch a small tree lizard.

diah 11/7/2015 6:56:21 PM

Hi.. so happy to see 2 hornbills bird just now at the tree near to car park at ballota park condo.. they are big and nice..

gintonic 2/1/2012 4:25:19 AM

Hi need your expert advice: I live in bukit timah in a high rise condo and everyday over the past 6-7 months, a pair of gorgeous hornbills hv been visiting me and my Neighbour for food. We are awfully distressed that they hv not appeared for the past 5 days!!! What could have possibly happened? It appears they hv their genealogy mapped but do they return to previous nest boxes if they wanted to breed? Please throw some light on this for me!

wham 9/30/2012 3:16:03 PM

I was biking along the beach on Sentosa this morning and spotted a large female Oriental Pied Hornbill in one of the trees below Capella. Does anyone know if there have been any other sightings on Sentosa?

Tang Peng Yew 5/9/2014 11:59:10 PM

Hornbills are omnivorous creatures dining on lizards, small snakes, worms and the young of other birds. They are extremely large, impressive looking birds. In a sense Singapore is gifted to possess them in the wild. They had totally disappeared from our shores for about 2 decades, and re-appeared after our Parks and Trees Division began replanting fruiting trees all over our island nation. The re-appearance of hornbills in Singapore is a fitting testament to the success of our tree planting program throughout Singapore. Occasionally hornbills are even spotted in Bt. Batok Nature Park according to some observers.

Lim Ching Ching 6/15/2014 8:45:30 PM

Hi guys! I think the huge bird I spotted on Saturday 14 Jun afternoon was this Hornbill species. It was spotted at Margaret drive, some trees beside the Queenstown Baptist Church. It was picking up something from a tree within the church when I spotted it and it shied away from me and flew off to perch in a nearby tree....are their man made nest box there too?

Jennifer 10/3/2014 2:29:19 PM

I recently moved to Changi V area and the 1st time I saw my 1st "wild" hornbill was during an evening run last week at Changi Beach. It was a pair of hornbill perching on the casuarina tree. The 2nd time was 2 days ago in the early morning on a tree in my condo! Really nice to see these magnificent creatures in the nature

ea 12/6/2012 6:36:49 PM

I saw 8 (!) today, flying around Tanglin Park. Got some nice pics of them! :)

Yu Xiu 9/14/2014 11:32:47 AM

Saw two hornbills going to mate at Pasir Ris near my house this morning at around 7. They are magnificant when they fly!!

Tang Peng Yew 5/10/2014 12:44:59 AM

If my estimate is not wrong, I have reason to believe that our pied oriental hornbills are slightly larger and heavier than the largest eagles and honey buzzards found throughout Southeast Asia and Indo-China. By the way, hornbills are widespread enough to be located in Indo-China and farther north in southern Chinese provinces like Yunnan and Kwantung.

Lisan 1/17/2012 9:48:10 AM

Thank you, Chao Rui, for your suggestion. We will look into how we can share the video with our readers.

Priscilla 5/23/2015 4:09:49 PM

Spotted two pairs of them in the trees at the carpark of hawker centre at East Coast. I saw them flying and was excited to see hornbills perched in a tree!!

Lips 5/13/2015 1:49:06 AM

Spotted a pair today at Princess of Wales' road at Bukit timah. Caught a picture of it!! :) How lucky!

Lisan 2/1/2012 2:35:30 PM

Hi Gintonic, five days is too short a time to say whether the hornbills have left for good. One possibility is that the female has now begun nesting (the season is normally December or January through to April), whereby the male would then stay fairly close to the nest site. Another possibility is that they might have moved to a different area. Please bear in mind that hornbills can fly long distances, and may move to a new area where fruit trees happen to be bearing fruit.

Lisan 10/3/2012 5:10:30 PM

Hi Wham, Earlier this year, staff from Sentosa Development Corporation shared that they had sighted up to six hornbills in a group visiting the island. However, these birds appear to be visitors which drop by every now and then, rather than reside at Sentosa.

Martin O'Donnell 5/19/2015 5:46:14 PM

Fortunate to have seen a pair in the trees at the end of the first section of the Alexandra Canal PCN beside the Tanglin View complex (late-March 2015).

wham 10/15/2012 9:00:53 PM

fyi i saw a hornbill again over the weekend in almost the same spot in front of Capella - so they are definitely frequenting Sentosa.

MBev 9/21/2014 5:16:57 PM

I am just across the road at Yarwood Ave and yes have seen the hornbills are now 4! Wonderful! Have been seeing them the in the neighbourhood almost daily.

Tang Peng Yew 5/10/2014 12:24:33 AM

The fierce Iban native tribe, formerly dreaded headhunters of Borneo, have many uses with hornbill feathers for their ceremonial head-dresses and customary tribal dance gowns. Reportedly, Japanese soldiers retreating from British troops in North Borneo during WW2 literally lost their heads at the hands of Iban blow-pipe warriors when they strayed into an Iban village.

diah 11/7/2015 6:50:49 PM

2 hornbill birds sported at the tree near car park ballota park condo today.. so happy to see them so big and nice..

Li-San 10/31/2014 4:28:35 PM

Hi Samar, Seems like you have made a feathered friend! The hornbill may have mistaken its reflection on the glass door for another hornbill. In which case, it is not seeking food or attention. We recommend you avoid feeding the hornbill or birds and other animals in general, as there is sufficient food in their natural habitat. Feeding them may cause them to become dependent on handouts, instead of looking for their own food. They may then demand food each time they see a person. We instead encourage you to just enjoy observing and taking photos or videos of your hornbill visitor. You can share them on NParks' <a href="http://www.facebook.com/nparksbuzz" title="Facebook" rel="nofollow">Facebook</a> or post them on your Instagram account and hashtag ‘#nparksbuzz’. We look forward to seeing your photos/videos!

cherry 8/28/2014 7:47:21 AM

I saw a pair at Queens town today! !

greg 3/1/2016 3:00:51 PM

we spotted a pair last week at queensway park connector.

invicta 5/17/2012 8:39:00 PM

Woo! I saw a hornbill today outside my balcony at Gerald drive. It was only 10 meters away but by the time I took my phone out for a shot, it got alarmed and flew away. It was a beautiful sight. Seeing it perched on an astonia tree and cocking its head made my day!

Trixie Liao 7/29/2015 12:39:26 PM

We are very blessed to have Hornbills coming back to visit us at the Kindergarten. Last year in 2014, it was alone. This year, 2015, it brought a partner. We believe that it has brought his partner this time. We hope to see a baby hornbill sometime soon! Both of them has been hanging around the mango trees in our school compound (being the mangoes in season) since March 2015. We have witness countless up-close opportunities, whereby the Oriental Hornbill flies down near us. We often see it flying to the children's sink and stare as itself in the mirror! What a vain hornbill he is! The children at the Kindergarten are indeed blessed at such a wonderful learning moment! We hope that they will stay here forever!

Li-San 6/17/2014 4:58:23 PM

Hi Ching Ching, The bird you saw is likely to have been an Oriental Pied Hornbill. We have see photos taken in 2013 of up to 6 hornbills near to the church along Margaret Drive. There are several nearby green areas with plentiful trees, for example in Dempsey and Tanglin. Hornbills nest naturally in tree cavities, and artificial nests are limited in number. At the same time, hornbills are very good fliers and can travel long distances, thus the bird you saw may not necessarily been nesting in the area, but could have flown from another area in search of food.

Jerome 10/7/2012 10:54:42 AM

Sighted 5 of this birds yesterday at Dempsey Hill while shopping at John Erdos Home. I have mistaken it for the Black and White Casqued hornbill form Africa as there are many migratory birds found here.

Sally Jafarzadeh 9/7/2014 8:28:32 AM

Hi, I live at Bukit Timah, The Sterling condo next to the old railway line. We are visited regularly by 2 Hornbills but over the last couple of weeks they have become 4! Wonderful to see these magnificent birds up close and hopefully thriving.

Lee Chao Rui 1/13/2012 6:06:09 PM

Will be helpful if NParks could host the video of the hornbill at the NParks website.

Sans 9/16/2012 10:32:27 PM

I live at Mt Emily and you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I read your article. "Our" hornbills have names! :) As you can tell, I love them. From when it was just Lili and Sada to Dennis, Emily and then Freedom :). We sometimes (maybe last month?) still hear their distinctive caws but sightings are rarer now. Thank you for posting about them.

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