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red billed hornbill

The Tanzanian Red-Billed Hornbill (Tockus ruahae) is found in open, wooded savanna with sparse groundcover, especially areas heavily trampled by game or livestock, and feeds mostly on insects, small mammals, and rarely, on seeds and fruit. They are common on alluvial flood plains with occasional large trees, and in Mopane Colophospermum mopane woodland; wanders into more open habitats in dry season.


It is one of the smaller hornbill’s. The adult has a grey-brown head and grey neck with ear coverts streaked white.  It boasts a broad white post-orbital stripe, narrowly streaked grey, from above eye to nape. Its back is black with a central white stripe and underparts are white.  The coverts are sooty brown, each with a large white central spot, and the greater secondary coverts being mostly white.

The flight feathers are black with small white spots across the centre primaries, outer secondaries are black, inner secondaries white with a black base, retrials dark brown with narrow cream edges.  

The bill is red with a narrow yellow base. The eyes are yellow with black skin around the eye and facial skin pink. The legs and feet are grey.

The immature hornbill will look the same as the adult but the bill assumes the same colour as the adult within a year. The juvenile will be the same as the adult but with eyes that are grey, changing to brown as it ages. The bill is a bit small, but more orange with a black patch at the base of the lower mandible in both sexes. The wing coverts are finely edged buff. 


The Tanzanian Red-Billed Hornbill issues high, clucking notes, usually given in long series that accelerates and breaks into faster double notes during territorial Bobbing display, given with head down: kok kok kok kok kok kok kokok kokok kokok kokok

The first syllable of the double note is longer and more intense than the second. Shorter sequences or single notes are used when the hornbill is in alarm, contact or threat. It will make low growling sounds in close contact, screeches when frightened, and gives squark of fear when suddenly surprised. Chicks beg with high piping notes, and females and chicks give harsh squawks when receiving food.

General Habits

The hornbill is usually territorial, found in pairs or small family groups, but may gather in flocks in the dry season. It spends much time running about on ground; regularly sunbathes and dustbathes. It is known to fly with direct flap-and-glide, returning to roost in trees close to the trunk or large branches, and reverting nightly to a favourite roost in summer breeding territory.

Foraging & Food

Most food items are taken from the ground by the hornbill by digging with its bill in loosen soil, detritus or herbivore droppings. It rarely pursues prey on foot but feeds mainly on small insects, favouring beetles, ants, termites, or flies and their eggs or larvae. In summer, its diet is often supplemented with larger arthropods including grasshoppers, centipedes, termite alates, scorpions and solifugids. Sometimes it will eat small vertebrates including reptiles, or even birds’ eggs and nestlings (eg Crimson-breasted Shrike and Red-billed Quelea), or scavenges dead rodents. They will rarely eat small seeds and fruits, eg of Shepherds-trees (Boscia spp) and corkwoods (Commiphora spp).


The hornbill is a monogamous, solitary nester, and is territorial. Male and female display together, bobbing up and down with head bowed and wings held close to body.

They will nest in a natural cavity in a tree, 0.3-9 m up. The female will inspect the nest holes and is often courtship-fed and brought lining by the male. The nest entrance is often only 30-40 mm wide, sealed by the female from inside, using own faeces, to narrow, vertical slit 10-15 mm wide. Cavity 200-250 mm diameter. Most nests have an escape hole above the main chamber. 2 – 7 eggs will be laid over an interval of 2 – 4 days.  The female will remain on the nest during incubation and be fed by the male.

The female leaves the nest when oldest chick is 16 – 24 days and helps the male deliver food. The chicks will reseal the nest entrance. Nestling period is 39 – 50 days and then the hornbill chicks remain hidden near the nest for a few days after fledging before joining adults to forage.

If you wish to see the Tanzanian Red-Billed Hornbill on one of our tours, take a look at the following tours available to do this:



Contact us to book your birding experience at www.tanzaniabirding.com.

Source: Roberts Multimedia

Birding photography

Going on safari is a feast for photographs. It usually conjures up images of golden light at dusk with sunset hanging in the air as all manner of creatures finish off the day around a watering hole and greet the coming night.

This may be a little exaggerated, but the truth of the tale is that your safari is remembered in the best light, with the perfect images of birds playing through the slideshow in your brain has put together. Then you reach for your photographs and wonder what went wrong.

We decided to put some points together to help you make the most of your photographs on your birding safari.

Bird Knowledge

Your bird knowledge can really help you here. Having the right equipment to be photographing the birds is important, but knowing what their behaviour is and where to find them, will help a great deal. If your bird knowledge is good and your guide’s knowledge is extensive, this will help you get the kind of photo you are looking for, eg. as a bird bursts into flight, where the bird is likely to be at different times of the day and how it will interact with the environment around it.


Having access to a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera is essential for the ease of use with multiple modes for different circumstances and being able to view your shots. Both Canon and Nikon make a range of these cameras to suit most budgets, but Sony and Olympus also have introduced reasonable models too. There are two big factors affecting your decision: the ISO rating (the sensor’s sensitivity to low light) and your shutter frame rate (how many frames per second can be captured). 


Your camera will allow you to choose between a couple of modes for focusing:

  • One-Shot AF – one-shot captured when the focus is locked
  • Continuous / AI Servo AF – when the shutter is half-pressed you will continue to capture shots as long as you track the subject.

Due to birds being creatures that move around considerably, the latter is more likely to be useful in photographing your feathered friends.

Eye Level

If you are able to, shoot at eye level. It changes the focus quite dramatically and means that the foreground and background can be blurred while your subject is in focus.

Photography lens

Wind Direction

Birds rely on wind direction for flight. They will try to fly into the wind because this gives them the lift they need to keep steady. Raptors especially rely on the wind to lift their heavier frames on the thermals.

If you wish to capture the birds flying head-on, it is a good idea to position yourself upwind of the bird.

Use support

Bean bags, monopods and tripods are all great forms of support to use if you are using larger lenses to capture your bird. They come in handy during different situations. 

Monopods can be a great help in keeping you steady when you may need to move around or have restricted space. Beanbags are superb for hides and vehicles to ensure a steady shot. When shooting long exposure or low light shots, tripods will provide the stability you need for a crystal clear shot.

Remote Triggers

These are super handy if you have skittish birds to photograph. You are able to place the camera in the necessary position and retreat to a quiet spot so that the birds can settle in. 

With a bit of luck, from your hidden area, you will be able to get some close-up shots without frightening the birds off. 

The most important tip of all is that you need to be comfortable and familiar with your equipment. Spend some time practising before you head off on safari to make sure that you come back with incredible photos to match your memories.

If you want to book an African Bird Safari, look at the exciting packages we offer and get in touch with us for your safari experience on tours@tanzaniabirding.com


Africa Geographic, Go 2 Africa.