Hornbills make wonderful aviary subjects (see photo of male Von der Deckin Hornbill) and handraised make great household pets. 

Hornbills  are  ungainly  looking  with  large, often colorful, beaks and lovely, long eyelashes.  They are known for their unique breeding habits in which the female is sealed inside a hollow  tree with a mud and feces mixture  leaving  only a small slit opening to allow  the  male to  pass  her, and later the young,  food.   When the babies fledge, the family breaks out of the cramped space.

Hornbills  can  be  found  in Africa and Asia.  We  raise  members  of the  Tockus  genus from  Africa  which  are  smaller  in size and more  carnivorous  than  the Asians.  While most of the Asian hornbills live in a rainforest habitat, the Africans live in more arid conditions, dry  scrubland  or  forests.    Africans often forage on the ground catching small prey.

In captivity, hornbills become tame and confiding, and some can be good pet birds.  


Availability in the USA

Many of the Tockus species are relatively common in softbill aviculture,  but the Asian hornbills are  much  more difficult to find.  Zoos  tend  to  have  more  of the Asians,  while  private softbillers have more of the African species.  Not only is this due to the CITES restrictions on imports, but also the fact that the Asians generally are physically larger, requiring very large aviaries, and are much more expensive.  

Although  most of the Asian hornbills are listed on CITES and illegal  to  import,  luckily  most  of the African hornbills are still able to be imported.  The African Tockus species, especially Red Billed and Von der Deckin species are the most inexpensive and frequently seen, and bred, hornbills at this time.  Handraised Tockus hornbills are becoming more available for pets also.
The  majority of hornbills are easily sexed visually.  The mature Red-Billed Hornbill male has a large amount of black on the lower mandible (see photo right), and the mature Von der Deckin male has a red and cream colored bill compared to a solid black one of the female (see photo left).  In other species gender differences are in eye color, facial skin color, the size of the casque, and plumage.
Many species of hornbills, such as this Northern Ground Hornbill  housed at the Sacramento Zoo, have casques.  Casques are bill growth extensions starting at the base of the upper mandible, or beak.  Typically the males have larger and showier ones than the females, although both species may have them.  Casques come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are often wrinkled or folded looking. Many species names are coined by the bird's casque.
Diet in Captivity 

Feeding hornbills is relativity easy with some extra attention at breeding times.  Since we only have African species  at this time, we feed all our hornbills the same diet.  They get a mixture of our basic softbill fruit diet    and water-soaked Zupreen Softbill pellets in a 1:1 ratio.  Insects, such as mealworms, frozen crickets, and waxworms, are given at least every other day.  A dish of dry pellets is available at all times.  We use a combination of Zupreen Softbill and Purina Trout Chow.

During breeding, there is a change in the feeding program.  Besides the regular diet, we add a large serving of livefood daily, in addition to a dish of mashed hard-boiled egg with the shell.  The birds will also eat pinkie mice.  Once chicks are hatched, we place a plastic tote in the aviary and keep it filled with crickets and or mealworms (see photo). 


Most  hornbills are kept in medium to large size outdoor flights with shelters and heat provided for the colder weather.   Hornbills can develop frostbite on  their toes and feet easily, often leading to loss of the limb if not protected from freezing temperatures.  Temperatures below 40*F for long periods of time are hard on hornbills.

For the smaller Tockus species, the minimum size flight would be 3 feet by 6 feet by 6 feet (LxWxHt).  Our hornbills  are  kept  outside  in planted aviaries that are  completely sheltered from wind and rain in the winter.  They will forage on the ground and dustbathe on the substrate. 

Smaller hornbill  species can be kept in medium-sized mixed species aviaries.  When breeding though, hornbills can become aggressive and kill smaller or less asssertive species.  Flights should contain only one pair of hornbills as fighting will occur, especially during breeding season.  Sunbathing is enjoyed by all species and they will hang their wings and fluff their back feathers to catch the sun's rays (see photo of female Trumpeter Hornbill). 


To many, this is the most interesting aspect of hornbills.  All, but the Ground Hornbill species, breed in tree cavities in the wild.  See the video describing the breeding behavior of a typical Tockus species.

Von der Deckin Hornbill Feeding Mate

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Copyright 10/98  Kateri Davis