Hooked on Hornbills

Story and Photographs by Tim Laman
October 15, 2010
Tim layman and his photographs of hornbills
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I will never forget my first day in the rainforest of Borneo. As I hiked along a remote path, I suddenly heard a loudwhoosh, whoosh, whoosh of wingbeats above the forest canopy. Looking up, I caught a glimpse of a huge, black, large-beaked bird landing high in a tree. A flash of red meant it was probably a Rhinoceros Hornbill, one of the most impressive birds on the planet. Yet it was so far above me that getting a picture from the ground was impossible. I shook my head and thought, “I have got to find a way to photograph these birds!”

That was more than 20 years ago, but from that day on, getting pictures of hornbills—especially the Rhinoceros Hornbill—became an overwhelming obsession. Figuring out how to photograph the elusive birds in the wild, in their dense forest-canopy habitat, took four years of fieldwork spread out over more than a decade. During that time, I learned how to identify and locate the fruiting trees that hornbills are most likely to return to day after day. I learned how to rig these trees with ropes so I could climb into the canopy. And I learned how to construct—while dangling hundreds of feet above the ground—blinds made of camouflage cloth, netting, and leafy branches to fool these wary birds into letting me get close enough to take intimate pictures. Finally, I learned that photographing hornbills requires infinite patience.

Gradually, I succeeded and expanded my pursuit to more than a dozen hornbill species, not only in Indonesia, but also in Thailand and the Philippines. To date, I’ve shot more than 10,000 photographs of Asian hornbills. At the same time, I’ve found out quite a bit about the lives of these fascinating creatures. And sadly, I’ve also seen firsthand the threats they face, especially from the loss of their forest habitat.

Hornbills belong to a family of 57 species that are native to tropical Africa and Southeast Asia. The birds are named for the decorative and often colorful projections on their upper bills. In most species, these structures—called casques—are light and hollow, and translucent when backlit by the sun. Though hornbills are not closely related to the smaller, similar-looking toucans of South America, they use their long bills in much the same way: to extend their reach as they forage in the forest canopy, primarily for fruit.

Tim layman and his photographs of hornbills

Hornbills are large birds and require immense areas of forest to find enough fruit to sustain themselves. In the process, they provide an invaluable service to many species of trees, transporting the seeds contained in their fruit far from the “mother tree” so that they can germinate. Hornbills swallow smaller seeds, which pass through their systems undigested and are deposited in feces on the forest floor. They regurgitate larger seeds after working the flesh loose in their stomachs. Although other animals also disperse the seeds of rainforest trees, hornbills are among the most effective because they travel widely and do not destroy seeds by chewing them, as do many mammals, or by grinding them up in their gizzards, like many birds. For the critical role they play in forest ecosystems, long-time hornbill researchers Margaret Kinnaird and Tim O’Brien, authors of The Ecology and Conservation of Asian Hornbills, have dubbed the birds the “farmers of the forest.”

Although different hornbill species have somewhat different diets, dispersing the seeds of different trees, one characteristic is shared by all Asian hornbills: an unusual nesting strategy found in no other group of birds. When a female hornbill is ready to lay eggs, she enters a hole in a tree and seals the entrance—using a combination of feces, regurgitated fruit, and mud delivered by her mate—leaving just a narrow opening. Once sealed inside, the female becomes totally dependent on the male, who passes food to her through the hole. For up to four months, the bird remains walled off from the world as she incubates her eggs and raises the chicks. A risky nesting strategy—the family is doomed if anything happens to the male—it provides hornbills nearly 100-percent protection against predators for their eggs and hatchlings.

Yet no strategies have evolved to protect the birds from their number-one enemy:Homo sapiens. Asia’s rainforests have not fared well in recent decades, and hornbills—which depend completely on these intact habitats—are suffering. According to the World Resources Institute, Thailand and the Philippines each had lost more than 80 percent of their original forest cover by 2000, and Indonesia had lost half—and these percentages have continued to increase since then. In some places, hunting and poaching of hornbill nestlings for the pet trade are also problems. Not surprisingly, 20 of the 31 Asian hornbill species are considered to be of “conservation concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and a few species are hovering close to extinction.

Fortunately, during my travels to photograph the birds, I have encountered several good-news stories. While photographing hornbills inside their nests in Thailand, I worked with a remarkable Thai biologist and conservationist named Pilai Poonswad. In addition to her pioneering research on the birds’ breeding biology, Poonswad helped set up a project that is now turning former hornbill chick poachers into the birds’ guardians by paying them to monitor and protect nest sites. Poonswad has been able to convince many poor villagers that conserving hornbills and their forests will provide many more benefits in the long run than the quick cash they could get from selling a chick as a pet. Her work is funded in part by an “adopt a hornbill nest” program. For as little as $150 a year, anyone in the world can become part of Poonswad’s team by supporting the protection of a nest within her study area.

Tim layman and his photographs of hornbills

To photograph the Writhe-billed Hornbill, the world’s most endangered hornbill species, I traveled into a remnant forest on Panay Island in the central Philippines. No more than 80 breeding pairs of the birds survive in the wild. To reach one of the remaining patches of mountain forest where they are hanging on, I hiked all day with Junior, a former chick poacher turned nest guardian, through gardens and vast stretches of ravaged woodlands, where poor farmers were planting fields freshly slashed and burned from the forest.

We finally reached an intact rainforest high on a rugged mountain, and Junior guided me to a Writhe-billed Hornbill nest site. From a cliff, we had a clear view of the bird’s nest hole in a tree growing from the bottom of a steep ravine. We prepared a blind and hiked back down to camp by the river. By dawn, I was back on the cliff and soon began capturing images of the male delivering food to the nest. It was gratifying to watch this hornbill doing what members of its species had done for millennia— seeking food and returning to the nest to provision his mate and offspring. His success or failure would determine whether or not his chick survived. I was reminded that individuals, whether birds or people like Junior, are the source of hope for the future.

Tim Laman is a wildlife photographer and field biologist based at Harvard University. He has studied and photographed tropical rainforest species for more than 20 years. Visit his website: www.timlaman.com

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