The Rhinoceros Hornbill : Malaysia’s National Bird

During our short and frenzied intermission between flights from New Zealand to England, we boarded a 4×4 and set off into Endau Rompin National Park, Malaysia. In our search for wildlife of all shapes and sizes, we stumbled upon a clearing from which a deep echoing, ‘hoooonk hooonk’ descended from the 50ft canopy. Our guides knew instantly we were in for a treat. ‘Hornbill!’ they shouted and ran into the clearing.

Buceros rhinoceros [MALE RHINOCEROS HORNBILL] Malaysia

 The first thing that hit me when seeing both male and female birds was how monstrous and prehistoric they looked. They are utterly huge. They reminded me of dinosaurs. Their most striking feature, their casque (the head ornament that looks like a second bill, or rhinoceros horn) is thought to have a similar function to that of  hadrosaur’s head crest (these dinosaurs lived ~60 million years ago). This feature atop the birds head is not surprisingly the influence behind their common name. Their casque is a hollow organ composed of keratin (the same stuff our fingernails are made from). This casque acts as a resonating chamber to amplify the birds calls. Like other hornbills, when they are young, their bills lack colour. Again like other hornbills, rhinoceros hornbills secret coloured oils from an oil gland (the uropygial gland). This gland is located under the tail. The birds progressively rub their bill against this gland and gradually produce the glossy red-yellow-orange colouration you can see in our images. Rhinoceros hornbills can reach a height of 1.3m with a wing span of 1.5m and weigh up to 3kg. Compared to my recent photographic encounter with New Zealand’s smallest endemic bird, the rifleman (height 8cm and weighing 6g), these two rhinoceros hornbill were something entirely different.


Both sexes have casques, but the males tend to be bigger and more impressive. This, however, is not a sure way to tell them apart. The best way to do so is to look at their eyes. Males have red eyes and females have white eyes. The individual that we spent most of our time with was the male. He hopped about the canopy ‘hooonking’, preening and checking us out for quite some time. The female flew to a higher tree in the distance soon after we entered the clearing.

Click to Zoom in; male (left) and female (right)

Rhinoceros hornbills can be found in Borneo, Sumatra, Java, the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, and southern Thailand. They generally inhabit lowland and montane, tropical and subtropical climates.

The Dayak people indigenous to Borneo believe the rhinoceros hornbill to be the ‘supreme worldly bird’ and use statues of the bird during certain celebrations. In fact, the bird is the state bird of the Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo. It is also Malaysia’s national bird.

The diet of rhinoceros hornbills consists mostly of fruit. However, they do take small mammals, birds and reptiles when the chance arises.  The birds practice a nesting ritual in which the female goes into a hollow tree cavity and helps the male seal the entrance with a paste made of fruit, mud, and faeces before laying her eggs. A small gap is left through which the male feeds the occupants several months. Any house keeping is carried out by the female and disposed of out through the same slit in which the male delivers food. When the chick become large enough, the female breaks free, and then with help from the male re-seals the chicks inside for the next portion of their development. Both parents continue to care for the chicks until they are old enough to break out of the nest on their own and take their first flight, and then for some time after.


Again, like most of the animals we seem to encounter, photograph and blog about, the rhinoceros hornbill has a few things threatening its existence. These conservation challenges that need addressing are primarily hunting and habitat loss. Deforestation can occur for many reasons but, in Malaysia, the ever-expanding oil palm plantations are having the greatest detriment. As for hunting, hornbills are used for food, in the live animal (pet) trade, and in traditional medicines. At least in the past, certain parts of the birds (tail feathers and casque) were sort after for their use in costumes and rituals. IUCN currently defines the rhinoceros hornbills status as near threatened.


Read more about our trip to Endau-Rompin National Park here.

References and further reading

Arkive Website – (Retrieved 21 May, 2017)

Wikipedia Website, Rhinoceros Hornbill – (Retrieved 20 May, 2017)

National Aviary Website – (Retrieved 20 May, 2017)

World Land Trust Website – (Retrieved 21 May, 2017)

Coraciiformes Tag Website – (Retrieved 21 May, 2017)

IUCN Redlist Website – (Retrieved 21 May, 2017)


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