Birmingham Zoo
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African Ground Hornbill

Common Name

Southern Ground Hornbill

Scientific Name

Bucorvus leadbeateri

Geographic Range

Southwestern Africa. They can be found from Angola to Mozambique and southern Kenya to southeastern South Africa. Their range includes all of Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.


Savanna, with large trees for nesting but short grasses for easy foraging.

Physical Description

The Southern Ground Hornbill is mostly black with vivid red patches of bare skin on the face and throat. The beak is black and straight, with a bony horn-like casque on top. This is more developed in males. Female Southern Ground Hornbills are smaller an have purplish-blue skin on their throats.

Life Expectancy

In the wild, these birds live around 35 to 40 years. In captivity, they can live 50 to 70 years.


Southern Ground Hornbills are carnivores and will eat any animal they can overpower. This includes insects, reptiles, small mammals and even other birds. In the Zoo, these birds are given mice and ground meat.


During the breeding season, the dominant male and female within the group will mate. They will build a nest inside a tree or along a rock face. The female usually lays two eggs. Incubation will last for about four weeks, and although two hatchlings might hatch only one will survive through the first few days. A chick will remain in the nest for up to twelve weeks and will continue to be fed for up to nine months. The rest of the social group will assist the mother in parental duties.

Cultural Connections

These birds have various types of cultural significance in their native range. Throughout the Southern Ground Hornbill’s entire geographic range, isolated local cultures believe it to be a protection against evil spirits, lightning, and drought. These birds are thought to be “unlucky” and signifiers of death particularly in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. It is thought of the same way in Kenya and Zimbabwe, but is fiercely protected and often avoided due to the power it has to bring calamity. In Zimbabwe and Malawi, it is thought that consuming parts of the bird, such as placing the bird’s ashes under the tongue, can allow a human to harness powers such as foreseeing the future or finding hard-to-locate food items. Lastly, the seasonal nature of this bird means that cultures in South Africa, Malawi, and Tanzania use it as a timekeeper. It can indicate the start and end of a work day, or when it moves to a new area can mean the start of the rainy season.

Conservation Connection

Vulnerable. Major threats include habitat loss, grassland erosion due to livestock grazing, and power line collisions.

Be the Change

The Southern Ground Hornbill is part of a Species Survival Plan, and the Birmingham Zoo participates by displaying and educating the public about these animals. More information on Southern Ground Hornbill conservation can be found here:

Location at the Zoo

Between the Cassowary and the Secretary Birds, to the left of the Sea Lion exhibit

The Zoo's Animals

Rafiki is the Zoo’s male Ground Hornbill, and Nala is the female Ground Hornbill.  Both of these birds were born in Tanzania in 1998.  This is the third zoo that they have lived in. They previously lived at the Winnipeg Zoo and the San Antonio Zoo.  They have been at the Birmingham Zoo since the fall of 2012.

Fascinating Facts

The red, bare patches of skin on their face and neck are generally believed to keep dust out of the bird’s eyes while they forage during the dry season. When hunting, they either kill the prey instantly by snapping the beak, or stab the prey repeatedly. The whole family will hunt as a group to take down large animals such as snakes.