After cleaning up the traditional nests in January, hornbills have, since February, started nesting eggs in tree cavities deep inside the jungles in Karian Shola near Top Slip in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve (ATR).

The chicks are expected to hatch out by the end of May or June.

While there is sustained focus on conservation of tigers and protection of herbivores that serve as a prey base for the carnivores, the multiplying of hornbills is also happening within the ATR.

Two species of hornbills found in this part of Western Ghats are Great Pied Hornbill (Buceros Bicornis) and Malabar Grey Hornbill (Ocyceros griseus).

“We have spotted close to 25 nests in the thick forests of Karian Shola,” Range Officer of Ulandy– Top Slip range S. Thangaraj Panneerselvam said.

Shy bird

Since the hornbill is a very shy bird, forest officials have denied trekking permission for tourists and access to Karian Shola even for naturalists.

“We do not want the nesting or the feeding of the female bird by the male bird to be disturbed. There is instruction to this effect from Field Director of ATR H. Basavaraju,” the Range Officer said.

Any disturbance will result in the male bird keeping away from the nest and this may cause the death of the female and the chicks as it is the male that brings them food.

Traditional nests

When it comes to nesting, the hornbills occupy only the traditional nests, which are typical hollows in tall trees in rainforests.

The same hollow is the nest year after year. It is abandoned only if the trees fall or any form of severe disturbance.

If barks grow and cover the nests used last year, look for another nesting place. The one with a narrow opening is taken over by the Malabar Grey Hornbill, which is smaller than the Great Pied Hornbill.

The nests are cleaned after surveillance for nearly a day to ascertain the presence of predators. It is done in January and nesting begins in February. The incubation period is 90 days.

Creates a quilt

Once the female bird gets into the nest, it sheds its feathers to create a quilt and on nesting the eggs, it covers the cavity with a paste made of its excrement and mud.

Hornbills normally hatch one or two eggs. To ward off ant threat to the eggs, it will keep its beak at the opening.

It is a rare sight to spot the male feeding the nesting female. The male passes food to the female through the slit that allows space only for the beak to pass.

The male bird will keep feeding the female with ficus fruits. A fortnight after hatching the eggs, the female will come out breaking the covering made of excrement and mud.

The chicks then cover the cavity and bring down the size of the opening. Male and female Hornbills then feed them with food such as snakes and lizards.

No open flying

Subsequently, for three or four days, the male and female hornbills will engage themselves in teaching flying to the chicks. The hornbills will never allow the chicks to fly in the open owing to the threat from black eagles, hawk eagles, black owl and hawk owl.

Despite such protective delivery and post-natal care, the survival rate of the hornbills is hardly 10 per cent to 15 per cent. However, of late, the population is healthy in the ATR areas.

Karian Shola was proving to be one of the best breeding sites for the hornbills, Mr. Panneerselvam said.