The Red-Billed Hornbill at Balaba Nature Camp

Behind this ordinary-looking mud-blocked hole is a truly amazing story.

Red-billed Hornbill Gambia

Hidden away in one of the Rhun Palm trees here at Balaba Nature Camp is the nesting hole of a pair of Red-billed Hornbills. Until two weeks ago I had no idea about how Red-Billed Hornbills nest, and the more I’ve found out, the more amazed I am. So I thought I would share the story with you.

When I first arrived back in late September, Lamin told me that there were Red-billed Hornbill nesting in the tree. He knew this because he had seen one of the birds feeding the chicks. I was really excited about this, and although the nest is quite high up in the tree, I have been able to get a photo.

Red-billed Hornbill Gambia

Red-billed Hornbills make their nests in existing tree holes, perhaps hollowed out by another bird such as a woodpecker or even an abandoned bees nest. They look for a hole together, and when they find one that suits them, the female climbs inside ready to lay her eggs. They then block up the hole using mud and droppings, leaving a small opening at the centre.

The female then lays her eggs and moults all her feathers. She stays in the nest hole for up to four months! The male brings food each day and feeds the female through the hole while she is sitting on the eggs. Eventually the eggs hatch, and when the eldest chick is about 21 days old, the female breaks out of the nest – by now, her feathers have grown back. I have read that the female then rebuilds the mud wall at the front of the nest, but I’ve also read that the chicks do this, so I’m not quite sure exactly which is correct (perhaps someone who knows could confirm this?). However, both parents then carry on feeding the chicks until they are ready to fledge.

Once the chicks do finally leave the nest they don’t return, but they can stay with the parents for up to 6 months.

At the moment we can only see one bird bringing food, so we guess it must be the male. But last week, Lamin asked a neighbour to climb the tree to remove the jelly coconuts at the top (they had a nasty tendency to fall without warning, and we were afraid they might land on someone’s head!). Our neighbour told us he could hear the baby chicks inside, so we know they have hatched, although we don’t know how old they are.

So now we are watching very carefully to see if we can spot when the female comes out. And of course, we are very excited about the possibility of having baby hornbills around. I will do my best to get some good photos to share with you.

Last time I was here I managed to get quite close to a Red-billed Hornbill who sat very obligingly for about half an hour while I took some photos. They certainly are very beautiful birds.

Red-billed Hornbill Gambia

If you want to know more about Red-billed Hornbills, you can read all about them on Wikipedia and also on the Seaworld site. A few days ago we were watching David Attenborough’s ‘Life of Birds’ on the laptop and we saw a different hornbill nesting in the same way, so perhaps all hornbills nest like this.

We have a few other nests around the compound, so perhaps another time I can tell you more about them.

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