Sunday, May 31, 2009

Unsung- Helmet

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a bird. The problem with them is that they tend to be cute, pretty, or majestic. Except, of course, for the carrion-eaters, but I can’t just write about vultures and pretend I’ve covered the entire class. So, like I always do, I went trolling through ARKive’s bird section and found this beauty.

Image by Doug Janson
Image by Doug Janson

The Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), hails from Southeast Asia, where it spends its time eating fruit, like the majority of Hornbills. They also hunt bugs, using their pointy beak in much the same way that a woodpecker would. This is not a small bird, growing up to around a five feet from beak to tail. Wikipedia describes their call as “hoots followed by maniacal laughter.” Listen to any of the recordings on this site all the way to the end, and you’ll understand what they mean.

The casque—the helmet that gives them their name—is solid, as opposed to most hornbills, which means the skull is about ten percent of the total body weight of the bird1. This comes in handy, as the males participate in the aerial equivalent of Bighorn Sheep clashes, fighting over females and territory by running head-on into each other while flying. I can’t find any videos of this, but I’m sure it would be amazing.

Their headgear has also gotten them into some trouble. As it is solid keratin, it can be used as a reddish ivory-like substance for carving (called, surprisingly enough, hornbill ivory). As one can expect, this does not bode well for the bird. Well, it was all right when only the natives were doing it2, but once the civilized world got wind of this material, things were not looking good. CITES has now clamped down on this, making any trade of hornbill ivory completely illegal. The constant rainforest destruction that everyone has worried about for as long as I can remember isn’t helping the Helmeted Hornbills’ population either.

1Compare our atypically large head, with about 0.7 percent of our body weight.
2This tidbit isn’t entirely related, but I can’t think of anywhere else to put it: apparently the natives believe that a giant Helmeted Hornbill guarded the river between the land of the living and the land of the dead.