Southern Ground Hornbill Fact File


Southern ground hornbills are the largest of the hornbills. They stand 90-100cm (35-59in) tall. Males weigh between 3.5 and 6.1kg (7.7-13.6lb) while females are smaller at between 2.2kg and 4.6kg (4.9-10lb).

Their grey bill may be between 19 and 22cm (0.6-0.7ft) long in males and 17 to 21cm (0.6-0.7ft) long in females. At the top of this bill is a casque which is a helmet-like structure composed of keratin. Their wingspan is around 1.2m (4ft) across. Their tail is 3-6cm (1-2in) long.

Most of the Southern ground hornbill’s body is black. The exceptions are the bare patches of red skin that surround their eye and on the air sac on the throat. It is believed that this bare patch of skin serves to keep dust from their eyes while they forage in the dry season. The tips of the wings are white. On the throat of females is a patch of violet-blue skin. The legs are black. Their eyes are yellow.


Southern ground hornbills are carnivores. They hunt a number of species including reptiles, amphibians, snails, insects, and small mammals.

Most of their food is hunted on the ground. When they find something to eat they will eat it whole. Sometimes they scoop the food up in their bill and line it up while continuing to hunt. They will then eat all the food they find in one sitting.

Southern Ground Hornbill

Scientific Name

Bucorvus leadbeateri  

Conservation Status



90-100cm (35-59in)



3.5-6.1kg (7.7-13.6lb)


2.2-4.6kg (4.9-10lb)


1.2m (4ft)


Wild 35-40 years

Captive 54 years



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Africa is the native home of the Southern ground hornbill. Here they can be found throughout Burundi, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland.


Here they can be found in the open woodlands, savannas and lightly wooded grasslands. These areas feature large trees in which they can nest and short grass where they can forage.

This species is non-migratory and defends a territory of 50 to 100km2 (19.3-38.6m2) year round. The worker birds will defend this using a call which can travel up to 2km (1.2 miles).


Breeding takes place in late summer. Mating takes place in a tree between a long term pair who will be the dominant pair in their group. During the breeding season the red pouch on the male’s neck inflates and he uses this to make a series of deep, booming noises.

The pair will build a nest in a natural tree cavity or rock hole and a pair may return to the same nest for up to 10 years. This site will be selected by the group’s dominant female. Females will spend time each day at the possible nest sites pecking off loose wood and arranging this in the nest. During this period the male provides her with food.

Once she selects a nest 1-3 white eggs with a pitted shell will be deposited into the nest. There is 3-5 days between the laying of each egg.

Incubation lasts for 40 days. The chick hatches with no feathers, pink skin, a grey bill with a white tip and they are blind. At hatching they weigh approximately 82g (3oz). Each chick hatches 3-5 days apart meaning the eldest chick has gained lots of weight by that time. Often only one chick will survive as the parents focus their efforts on the one chick.

This species lives in flocks of up to eight birds with all contributing to raising the chicks.

3 days after hatch the skin will turn a dark purple and by 7 days the eyes are open and the feather quills are starting to come through. At 14 days the body is covered by little quills and by 21 days these are starting to become feathers. By 30 days most of the feathers are developed but the wing and tail feathers continue to grow. At 3 months old they will fledge the nest. It may be up to 2 years before they are fully independent of their parents.

Sexual maturity is achieved at 3 years of age. It is rare that they will breed at this time as it is imperative to their future breeding success that they learn from helping rear their parents the next chick. Most birds breed for the first time at around six years old.


Southern ground hornbill groups number between 2 and 11. A dominant pair will be in control of the group. Their status is decided by their size and age. The others are workers who do a lot of the flock’s hunting.

Southern ground hornbills rarely vocalize. When they do it is a booming noise which is made by filling the air sac on the throat and then releasing this air. Their boom is so loud that it is sometimes mistaken for the roar of lions.

Predators of the Southern ground hornbill include martial eagles, leopards and crocodiles. The chicks may also be taken by genets and snakes. Some large raptors will take food from the bill of a hornbill.

Warthogs sometimes encourage hornbills to eat the ticks off of their back. When looking for food they may follow herd animals and eat the animals which jump out of their way.

Southern ground hornbills are diurnal. They will nest during the night in a tree then rise at dawn. When they rise they produce territorial calls and then fly down to begin foraging.

Quick facts

The Southern ground hornbill is believed to bring good luck.

Southern Ground Hornbill

Photo Credits


By Neil McIntosh from Cambridge, United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


By Neil McIntosh from Cambridge, United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


By Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE (Southern Ground-Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


BirdLife International 2016. Bucorvus leadbeateri. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22682638A92955067. Downloaded on 21 April 2020.

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