Welcome to the nineteenth edition of Shakati Bush Facts. In this edition we will be focusing on the Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill.


The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill (Tockus leucomelas) is known by several names, which includes:

Geelbekneushoringvoël [Afrikaans]; Suidelike geelbekneushoringvoël [Afrikaans]; Rukoko (generic term for hornbills with red or yellow bills) [Kwangali]; Goto, Hoto (generic names for hornbill) [Shona]; Nkorho (generic term for smaller hornbills) [Tsonga]; Kôrwê [Tswana]; Geelsnaveltok [Dutch]; Calao leucomèle [French]; Gelbschnabeltoko [German]; Calau-de-bico-amarelo [Portuguese]

Robertson’s Bird ID: 459


Hornbill - Identification

The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill is about the same size as a crow (48–60 centimetres long). The males and females have the same plumage and colours and are characterized by a long yellow and down-curved beak.

The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill has the following features:

  • Head: Grey
  • Eyes: Yellow or sometimes Brown
  • Bill: Yellow large curved bill, up 1/6th (up to 90 mm long) of the entire body length
  • Neck: White with Grey spots. As in all hornbills, the size of the beak actually intrudes on the frontal vision of the bird and the first two neck vertebrae are fused together.
  • Back: black and white distinctly patterned with abundant white spots and stripes
  • Belly: White lightly striated with black
  • Legs: Stubby and Grey. The front three toes are fused together near the base
  • Tail: Long


Southern yellow-billed hornbill (1)

The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill primarily forages for food on the ground, but will also dig into soil and lift rocks with its bill in search of food. Their diet includes:

  • Invertebrates (insects, termites, ants, beetles, crickets and grasshoppers, emperor moths, centipedes, arachnids)
  • Vertebrates (nestlings, rodents, snakes, chameleons, frogs, bird eggs)
  • Plants (Fruits and seeds)

Insects caught in the bill tip are tossed into the mouth with a flick of the head and they are one of the least fussy of eaters which welcome the opportunity to dine on rodents, small snakes, eggs, scorpions and ants.


Southern yellow-billed hornbill (4)

The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill occurs in several habitats. They are commonly found on Southern Africa’s dry open savannas, but they can be found as well in acacia, mopane scrub, scattered trees, thorn bushes and broadleaved woodlands. They are usually found in waterside vegetation, but the hornbill avoids locations where the grass and undergrowth are especially tall and dense.

They can be found from Angola and Namibia in the west to Mozambique and KwaZulu-Natal in the east, including Botswana, Zimbabwe and northern South Africa.

The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill doesn’t occur frequently at Shakati, and is mostly seen in the northern part of the reserve.


Southern yellow-billed hornbill (3)

Where conditions are particularly suitable, there may be as many as 6 breeding pairs in a half-mile square, each in its own territory. Outside the breeding season, the species is usually in pairs or small family parties. The southern yellow-billed hornbill is active during morning, day and evening. At night, it will sleep high in a tree so it won’t be preyed on. They are generally sedentary and they will defend their territories with elaborate displays

Southern yellow-billed hornbills have a piercing cry. However it has a wide variety of sounds it can make such as, whistling, grunting and caqueting. They will use their loud calls to either delimit their territory or for long-distance communication.


Southern yellow-billed hornbill (5)

The breeding season start when the first good spring rain falls from September to March with the egg-laying peak between October and December. It nests in natural tree holes up to about 12 m above ground, lining the chamber with dry leaves and small bark flakes. The entrance is sealed by the female from the inside with her own faeces, leaving a vertical slit 5-15 mm wide. It lays 2-6, usually 3-4 eggs which are incubated by the female for roughly 24 days; the male feeds the female through the narrow slit.

The female will shed all of her flight and tail feathers simultaneously and regrow them in during the time she stays with the chicks. Once the chicks are half-grown, the female will break out of the nest in order to help the male. The chicks will rebuild the wall themselves and continue to be fed through the slits by the parents. Once the chicks are fully grown, they will break out of the nest and start flying. Once hatched, the chicks stay in the nest for 42-47 days.



There are few predators for the Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill. The predators includes: Lanner falcon, Secretary bird, Wahlberg’s eagle, Bateleur, Martial eagle, African hawk-eagle, Dark chanting goshawk, Black sparrow hawk, Spotted eagle-owl and Verreaux’s eagle-owl



The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill is a common bird and is not threatened according to UNSESCO. There’s concern, however, about the long-term future of these and other hornbills as relentless land misuse steadily reduces their habitat.



The Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill is a beautiful bird of the bushveld, and once you look closer you will learn so much more. You can play an active part in nature conservation by learning and more about the different kinds of birds, especially the Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill.

See you next time!







Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG (eds) 2005. Roberts – Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town


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