Nitya was thrilled, as she had just seen her first wild Great Hornbill at Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. “I’m sure they get their names from the horn-like structure on top of their beak”, she said. “You’re right!” replied Kumar, “It is called a casque. Another special thing about hornbills is how they nest. Let’s go and see one that we know.” To avoid disturbing the birds they quietly hid behind a large bush near the nest tree, took out their binoculars and watched the nest hole that Kumar pointed out.
‘WHOOSH, WHOOSH’ came the sound again. A Great Hornbill landed on the nest-cavity. It had a bright-red fruit in its beak. As it bent its head, another beak peeped from within the cavity, took the fruit, and disappeared inside. More fruit appeared one by one in the hornbill’s beak, and went inside the cavity until the bird perching outside flew away.
Kumar saw the happiness along with questions on Nitya’s face. He explained, “The bird that was perched outside was the father hornbill and the beak that was peeping from inside was of the mother hornbill. Once the mother and father find a suitable nest-cavity, the mother enters and closes herself inside the cavity by building a wall with her droppings, leaving a small gap for her beak to peep out. She stays inside for 3-4 months to lay eggs, incubate them and feed the chicks. During these months the father hornbill provides fruits and occasional frogs and lizards to his wife and children who are sealed inside the big tree as you just saw!”
Nitya was listening carefully, and said, “In the story I heard when I was young, people from the nearby village hunted hornbills. Why would anyone want to harm such beautiful birds?” Pahi smiled. “I was one of these hunters! Please don’t be upset; let me explain. I belong to Nyishi community. We hunted hornbills for meat and wore the beak to decorate our head-gear, or ‘bopia’, as part of our tradition. When we lived our traditional life, close to nature we followed strict hunting rules. However, with modernisation, hunting has become commercial and also a sport, threatening the survival of hornbills. When we realised this, and understood that our area is one of the few places in India which is home to these extraordinary birds, we decided to act. Several of us have now grouped together to protect hornbills and their nest trees so that future generations can see these fascinating birds for real and not only in stories or pictures.”
Nitya’s fears at rest, they walked back home in the gathering dusk, surrounded by the sounds of the forest. Perhaps Nitya would come back here one day, to study the forest, and help conserve the hornbills in it.
Giving nests a helping hand
Great Hornbills need large trees to nest in. A pair usually produces one chick each year, so hornbill populations are very vulnerable to hunting and deforestation. A ‘Hornbill Nest Adoption Program’ has been initiated around Pakke to provide protection to hornbills and their nest trees. For more information about this program, write to [email protected] .
First Published in The Hindu, July 23, 2014