Birdwatchers are of two kinds: the lucky ones, and the perennially jinxed. You may have guessed that I belong to the second category, slogging for years to sight the great Indian hornbill, a creature that others may find fairly easy to track. Twitchers—birders who go to great lengths to sight a bird and tick it off their wish list—often keep scores, and for the longest time, my hornbill score was a lamentable three. The following true incidents recount my decade-long search for the great Indian hornbill, and the lessons this magical bird taught me on my grand misadventures.
To rephrase George Orwell’s famous line, “All birds are equal, but some birds are more equal than others.” Hornbills are most prized for being indispensable dispersers of seeds; they are capable of regenerating an entire forest. The great Indian hornbill is found in Southeast Asia, and in India, it inhabits the rainforests of the Northeast and the Western Ghats. As any birder familiar with the great Indian hornbill knows, the gorgeous creature has an irresistible charm, with its striking yellow, black and white plumage, the large whoosh of its wings in flight, and its larger-than-life presence.
Hornbills are also famous for being highly dedicated husbands and parents. When breeding, the female hornbill seals herself in a tree hollow to minimise the risk of predation, leaving a narrow slit open through which the male feeds her. The male is solely responsible for rations until the chick is old enough to fly. Sadly today, a majority of hornbill species are vulnerable, threatened or endangered owing to habitat loss and hunting.
India is home to nine of the 57 hornbill species spread over Asia and Africa. Over the years, I have managed to track the great Indian, Oriental pied and wreathed hornbills, but the more elusive rufous-necked, brown, and Narcondam hornbills still elude me.
Rohan Chakravarty is a cartoonist, illustrator and animation designer from Nagpur and the creator of Green Humour, a series of cartoons on wildlife and conservation (www.greenhumour.com). He has been awarded by the UNDP, Sanctuary Asia, and WWF International, among others. Rohan is notorious for rolling up into a ball like a pangolin to avoid answering the phone or meeting people.