Singapore, 30 May 2011Jurong Bird Park, the world’s largest avian paradise, has scored a first yet again with the successful artificial incubation of two great pied hornbills, one of the most notoriously difficult species to breed in captivity. Eggs were carefully removed from the hornbills’ nest box this breeding season and incubated at the park’s Breeding and Research Centre (BRC). This was necessary as the breeding pair had cannibalised the chicks the previous year.

“While such cannibalisation behaviours are natural and common in hornbills, it differs from species to species. With the oriental pied hornbills, it is the survival of the fittest where the weakest hatchling is usually killed and eaten by the female,” said Dr Minerva Bongco-Nuqui, Curator, Jurong Bird Park.

To avoid a similar situation, avian keepers kept a close watch on the nesting pair, and quickly extracted their eggs the second week after laying. “Hornbills are generally very selective and monogamous when it comes to mating and take a while to breed as they would require a long time to bond. Conservation and captive breeding are crucial for great pied hornbills since they are losing their natural habitat because of rapid urbanisation and human activities,” she added.

Due to the size of this magnificent bird and its special nesting requirements, captive breeding is especially difficult as tree cavities need to be big enough. Hornbills have unique breeding characteristics as the female seals herself in the nest, leaving a tiny slit through which her male counterpart feeds her foraged or hunted food. She would remain sealed in the nest for up to three months, when her chicks are ready to fledge and leave the nest.

The pair has been together for over 10 years, and had their first offspring in 2006. Their two new chicks hatched in the BRC on April 14 and 20 respectively, and have been under the care of Mr Elden Gabayoyo, the Avian Management Officer in charge of the Centre.

“As these hatchlings were artificially incubated, we were very careful about their diet,” he noted. “In the first few days, they were fed with mice pinkies, papaya, vitamin supplements and Pedialyte for hydration. When they grow older, they will eat mealworms, crickets and fruit such as papaya and banana, and will eventually be moved to the exhibit when they can feed on their own.”

This is the first time the Jurong Bird Park has artificially incubated a hornbill species. The latest offspring brings the total number of great pied hornbills at the park to 17. They are one of the largest members of the hornbill family, and can live up to 50 years in captivity. They are found in the forests of India, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. Admired for their size and bright colours, they are prized for their body parts, e.g. beaks and heads are used as charms and souvenirs, feathers used in head dresses and flesh as medicine; hence the urgent need for greater conservation efforts for this and other hornbill species.