Endangered Hornbills Back at the Zoo After 45 Years

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It has been 45 years since the Zoo has last cared for rhinoceros hornbills. In 1971, the Zoo acquired 2 male rhino hornbills, but after a brief period at the Zoo, one was transferred to another zoo in 1972, and the other was transferred the following year. The Zoo has grown a great deal since then, and staff are thrilled to be able to house these endangered tropical birds once again.

The Gladys Porter Zoo is now home to two endangered rhinoceros hornbills. The birds, a male and female, arrived from Sacramento Zoo on Friday, October 27th. After undergoing the standard quarantine period, the pair will make their debut in the newly renovated Indo-Australian Aviary.

These birds are native to the rain forests of Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and Indonesia. Being one of the largest species of hornbills, they also have one of the largest casques, a hollow “horn-like” feature above their beaks, which is formed from the same material as fingernails (keratin). Like fingernails, the rhinoceros hornbill’s beak and casque are naturally white, but from rubbing its beak and casque against an oil gland under its tail, it eventually produces the shiny red-yellow-orange color, which is so vibrant in adult birds. The rhinoceros hornbill’s casque isn’t just about having good looks- the structure is thought to amplify the hornbill’s calls so they can be heard from a far distance. This is a feature shared with duckbilled-dinosaurs, also known as hadrosaurids, which existed more than 60 million years ago.

One can determine its sex by a slight difference in the size of their hornbills-males having a slightly larger hornbill than females. However, another striking feature about these exotic birds is that one can clearly determine their sex by the color of their eyes- the color of the males eyes are mahogany red, and the female’s eyes are white.

Rhino hornbills are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and their population continues to decline. Their biggest threats include habitat loss and poaching. Poachers hunt them for meat as well as for their hollow casques and feathers, which are used as an accessory. Shockingly, the rhino hornbills also suffer from a case of mistaken identity-they are often mistaken for the helmeted hornbill, which has a similar casque that is worth more than ivory on the black market, placing the rhino hornbill at a great risk.

During the holiday break, bring your children to meet these exotic and rare creatures that share features of dinosaurs that existed millions of years ago.

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