Southern Ground Hornbill

The Southern Ground Hornbill is the largest hornbill in the world

South Africa BirdlifeThe Southern Ground Hornbill {Bucorvus leadbeateri}

The Southern Ground Hornbill is the largest hornbill in the world, and is also known as the Ground Hornbill and the African Ground Hornbill.

It is striking for its black plumage and the deep-red skin on its face and neck, which create an intense colour scheme that is quite irresistible to avid birdwatchers and nature-lovers alike.

This particular species prefers walking on the ground (hence its name) and foraging for food, as opposed to flying through the air or perching in the boughs.

Females are distinguished from their male counterparts by the violet-coloured patch on their throats, while males have a pure red face and throat. Both males and females have yellow eyes and a large, curved bill. On the top of this distinguished-looking bill is a small helmet, known as a casque. Interestingly, the primary feathers under the wings are white, and show on the odd occasion that the Southern Ground Hornbill flies.

Quick Facts


Range mass: 2.2 to 6.1 kg.
Range length: 100 to 120 cm.
Range wingspan: 120 to 180 cm.


This bird tends to occupy woodlands and savannahs in which it can forage for small animals, fruit and seeds. They can be found roosting in broadleaved trees.


The beautiful Southern Ground Hornbill can be found in the southern and eastern parts of Africa. They occupy the land from southern Kenya and Burundi, through Angola and Namibia to South Africa.


This particular hornbill species’ diet consists mainly of invertebrates that are readily found on the ground (including spiders), as well as lizards, snakes and amphibians. In fact, this bird has been observed eating larger prey, such as hares and tortoises. Some menu items that are less common include carrion, and fruit and seeds. Warthogs are sometimes privy to a grooming session, during which the bird removes and eats parasites.


The Southern Ground Hornbill is a charismatic bird, charming and entertaining to observe.


This bird communicates easily, particularly in a group, which can become quite loud. The call is deep and booming, carrying over long distances. When the call is chorused, it can be heard some three kilometres away. This type of communication allows the group to keep its territory defined.


The Southern Ground Hornbill mates between September and December. The female will make her nest in a tree or a cliff hollow and will usually lay two eggs. Interestingly, she will lay the first egg about four days before the second, giving this chick the opportunity to be stronger than the other. Only one chick will survive to fledgling stage.

The breeding patterns of this hornbill mean that the reproductive process is slow, with some family groups in South Africa producing a healthy fledgling only every eight or nine years.

These birds may sometimes live as a breeding pair, committed to their ‘partner’. However, more frequently, they live as a breeding group consisting of between two and 11 individual birds, with a dominant breeding pair that is then assisted by other members of the group.


The Southern Ground Hornbill incubates the eggs for around 40 days. After this, they hatch (in the order in which they were laid). The chicks fledge when they are about 85 days old, but will continue to live with and rely on their mother for a few months.

Life Expectancy

The lifespan of the Southern Ground Hornbill is impressive spanning some 50 or 60 years.


The Southern Ground Hornbill’s numbers are in a steady decline, and it is now classified as being Vulnerable and, in some places, Critically Endangered. In South Africa, this is due to almost three-quarters of its habitat being lost to overgrazing, a loss of suitable breeding trees, the land being converted into commercial farms, and so on. The male of this species is known for cracking glass windows, as it watches and interacts with its reflection. This has led to their being poisoned or otherwise killed by the homeowners.

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