If you venture out for a game drive early in the morning, you might be lucky enough to hear the haunting sounds of southern ground hornbill, as the male and female duet.
The southern ground hornbill is one of the Kruger Park's big six birds and is classified as a threatened species in the Red Data List. This is why the Kruger National Park (KNP) in conjunction with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) have been surveying Kruger's southern ground hornbill population and removing some of the chicks.
"Like a number of birds the southern ground hornbill lays two eggs each year, but only the first will get the opportunity of leaving the nest", explains EWT project coordinator Scott Ronaldson. "The female lays two eggs a couple of days apart, as a kind of insurance policy. The first chick hatches about three days before the second and has therefore got an advantage. When the second chick hatches, the first chick outcompetes the second preventing it from getting fed".
Scott's project gives some of these second chicks a second chance at life. "We remove only six second chicks from selected nests per year. These chicks are either transported to Loskop Dam or Johannesburg Zoo. They are fed using feeding puppets, so that the chicks do not get used to humans, enabling them to one day return to the wild. The goal is for the chicks to form groups and these groups will be re-released into the areas they once frequented, expanding existing southern ground hornbill populations".
Southern ground hornbills have become endangered in South Africa for a host of reasons, although most commonly through the loss of suitable habitat due to urbanisation, agriculture and other forms of habitat degradation or destruction as well as the mhuti trade.
In order to remove chicks safely, the EWT needs to select suitable nests. "Accessibility is what makes a nest suitable, we choose nests that are close to gates and roads. We do this to minimise the stress placed on the second chick during its removal from the nest and the journey to its new home".
By knowing where southern ground hornbills are nesting, it not only helps with selecting the nests for chick extractions, it also allows Scott to monitor the Kruger Ground Hornbill population. As Scott explains "It is important that we understand how Kruger's southern ground hornbill population is doing, in terms of the number of nesting pairs and changes in population figures. This information will feed into the Park's management plans and make sure management decisions are properly informed".
But the EWT can't do it alone. "We need help when it comes to locating new nests. The Kruger National Park is enormous and we simply don't have the funding or manpower to cover it all. We are asking tourists who come to the Park to be our eyes and ears, to help us locate new nests. Most of the nests we currently know about result from tourist tip offs. The role of tourists in this research is invaluable. Currently we have identified 175 groups but only 60 nests. That means we are missing over 100 nests!"
"During November and December the female southern ground hornbill will start sitting on their nests. The best time to locate a nest is early in the morning, just around sunrise when the birds start calling. They only call for about 10 minutes, but this should give you a good idea of where the nest is located. Another good signal is southern ground hornbills carrying food. This is a sure sign that a female is sitting on a nest. Females are easily identifiable from the males as they have a blue patch under the bill. So if you see groups of birds without a female it is a sure sign that she is sitting on a nest somewhere. Any information about any hornbill sighting is gratefully received.
"We started ringing the first chicks from nests where we took the second chick. Some of these are now adults and you will see them from time to time walking around. If you see one of these birds please make a note.
We can then identify individuals and plot the sighting. This gives us an idea of the home range of these birds"
By noting the location of any hornbill sighting, especially if you have GPS coordinates or kilometres from the nearest road junction, and sending this information along with a description of the sighting to email@example.com, you will help Scott and the EWT in ensuring that the future of this enigmatic bird is conserved, for the enjoyment of generations to come.
Dr Katy Johnson