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Great Hornbill

Buceros bicornis

Bird that can be seen in Valparai

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The great hornbill also known as the great Indian hornbill or great pied hornbill, is one of the larger members of the hornbill family. It is found in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Its impressive size and colour have made it important in many tribal cultures and rituals. The great hornbill is long-lived, living for nearly 50 years in captivity. It is predominantly frugivorous, but is an opportunist and will prey on small mammals, reptiles and birds.

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The great hornbill is a large bird, 95–130 cm long, with a 152 cm wingspan and a weight of 2.15–4 kg. It is the heaviest, but not the longest, Asian hornbill. Females are smaller than males and have bluish-white instead of red eyes, although the orbital skin is pinkish. Like other hornbills, they have prominent "eyelashes".

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The most prominent feature of the hornbill is the bright yellow and black casque on top of its massive bill. The casque appears U-shaped when viewed from the front, and the top is concave, with two ridges along the sides that form points in the front, whence the Latin species epithet bicornis (two-horned). The back of the casque is reddish in females, while the underside of the front and back of the casque is black in males.

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The casque is hollow and serves no known purpose, although it is believed to be the result of sexual selection. Male hornbills have been known to indulge in aerial casque butting, with birds striking each other in flight. The male spreads the preen gland secretion, which is yellow, onto the primary feathers and bill to give them the bright yellow colour. The commissure of the beak is black and has a serrated edge which becomes worn with age.

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The wing beats are heavy and the sound produced by birds in flight can be heard from a distance. This sound has been likened to the puffing of a steam locomotive starting up. The flight involves stiff flaps followed by glides with the fingers splayed and upcurled. They sometimes fly at great height over forests.

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The species was formerly broken into subspecies cavatus, from the Western Ghats, and homrai, the nominate form from the sub-Himalayan forests. The subspecies from Sumatra was sometimes called cristatus. Variation across populations is mainly in size, Himalayan birds being larger than those from further south, and the species is now usually considered monotypic.

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Like other members of the hornbill family, they have highly pneumatized bones, with hollow air cavities extending to the tips of the wing bones. This anatomical feature was noted by Richard Owen, who dissected a specimen that died at the Zoological Society of London in 1833.

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Great hornbills are found in the forests of India, Bhutan, Nepal, Mainland Southeast Asia, Indonesian Island of Sumatra and North eastern region of India. The distribution of the species is fragmented over its range in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. In the subcontinent they are found in a few forest areas in the Western Ghats and in the forests along the Himalayas. Their distribution extends into Thailand, Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. A small feral population is found in Singapore. Their habitat is dense old growth (unlogged) forests in hilly regions. They appear to be dependent on large stretches of forest, unlike many of the smaller hornbills.

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In Thailand the home range of males was found to be about 3.7 km2 during the breeding season and about 14.7 km2 during the non-breeding season.

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Great hornbills are usually seen in small parties, with larger groups sometimes aggregating at fruit trees. A congregation of 150 to 200 birds has been recorded in southeastern Bhutan. In the wild, the great hornbill's diet consists mainly of fruit. Figs are particularly important as a food source. Vitex altissima has been noted as another important food source. Great hornbills also forage on lipid-rich fruits of the Lauraceae and Myristicaceae families such as Persea, Alseodaphne and Myristica. They obtain the water that they need entirely from their diet of fruits. They are important dispersers of many forest tree species. They will also eat small mammals, birds, small reptiles and insects.Lion-tailed macaques have been seen to forage alongside these hornbills.

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They forage along branches, moving along by hopping, looking for insects, nestling birds and small lizards, tearing up bark and examining them. Prey are caught, tossed in the air and swallowed. A rare squirrel, the Travancore flying squirrel has been eaten, and Indian scops owl, jungle owlet and Sri Lanka green pigeon have been taken as prey in the Western Ghats.

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During the breeding season (January to April) great hornbills become very vocal. They make loud duets, beginning with a loud "kok" given about once a second by the male, to which the female joins in. The pair then calls in unison, turning into a rapid mixture of roars and barks. They prefer mature forests for nesting. Large, tall and old trees, particularly emergents that rise above the canopy, seem to be preferred for nesting. They form monogamous pair bonds and live in small groups of 2-40 individuals. Group courtship displays involving up to 20 birds have been observed.

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The female hornbill builds a nest in the hollow of a large tree trunk, sealing the opening with a plaster made up mainly of feces. She remains imprisoned there, relying on the male to bring her food, until the chicks are half developed. During this period the female undergoes a complete moult. The young chicks have no feathers and appear very plump. The mother is fed by her mate through a slit in the seal. The clutch consists of one or two eggs, which she incubates for 38–40 days. The female voids feces through the nest slit, as do the chicks from the age of two weeks. Once the female emerges from the nest, the chicks seal it again.

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The young birds have no trace of a casque. After the second year the front extremity separates from the culmen, and in the third year it becomes a transverse crescent with the two edges growing outwards and upwards, while the anterior widens to the width of the rear end. Full development takes five years.

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Roost sites are used regularly and birds arrive punctually at sunset from long distances, following the same routes each day. Several tall trees in the vicinity may be used, the birds choosing the highest branches with little foliage. They jockey for position until late at dusk. When sleeping they draw their neck back and the bill is held upwards at an angle.

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Very few hornbills are held in captivity, and few of them breed well. Females at the nests are extremely easy to capture, and birds caught in the wild are mostly female. Breeding them in captivity has been notoriously difficult, with fewer than a dozen successful attempts. Their extreme selectivity for mates and their long and strong pair bonds make them difficult to maintain for breeding.

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In captivity hornbills eat fruits and meat, a healthy diet consisting mostly of fruit and some source of protein. A few have been tamed in captivity but hornbill behavior in captivity is described as highly strung. Captive specimens may bask in the sun with outstretched wings.

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Great Hornbill</p>, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Great Hornbill</p>, Bird that can be seen in Valparai
Great Hornbill</p>, Bird that can be seen in Valparai

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Wings over Valparai

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The Anamalai Tiger Reserve and Valparai area in Western-Ghats of Tamilnadu are both perfect bird watching destinations. Birders will marvel at the array of colorful birds like Hornbills, Thrush Family, Flycatchers, woodpeckers and of course the sighting of our national bird, The Indian Peafowl.

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There are more than 350 species of birds found in Anamalais. The list includes resident birds, winter visitors and endemic birds of Anamalais. Nearly 5 % of birds found in Anamalai Tiger Reserve are endemic to Western Ghats

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What is birdwatching?

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Birdwatching or birding is the observation and study of birds with the naked eye or through a visual enhancement device like binoculars. Birding often involves a significant auditory component, as many bird species are more readily detected and identified by ear than by eye. Most birdwatchers pursue this activity mainly for recreational or social reasons, unlike ornithologists, who engage in the study of birds using more formal scientific methods.

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What do you need for birdwatching?

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• The most basic equipment required for bird watching is your eyes. That´s true but you will soon need to have more items with you if you intend to make this a pastime or serious hobby. How far you go is a matter of taste and budget.

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• The most useful thing that you can carry is a notepad and pencil. Use this to make a note of location, time, date, weather and habitat. Do a list of the birds that you see and know. Do a drawing or write down a description of those that you don’t. You can look them up later in you field guide. Your notebook should become a diary of where you have been and what you have seen. It will become a useful record as time passes.

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• A Field guide is a book, normally illustrated with drawings or photographs, which provides descriptions of birds that assists you in their identification. The descriptions use several factors to help you determine the exact bird that you are looking at. As soon as you see a bird that you do not recognize you will need to have access a good field guide. There are many to choose from. They come in various shapes, sizes, weight and cost.

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• Sites guides. These give locations where you can watch birds, the species you are likely to see and the best time to watch.

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• Binoculars. These are pretty essential and buy the best that you can afford. A good pair well looked after will last you a lifetime. Take time to choose ones that suit you.

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• Clothing. Bird watching being primarily an outdoor pursuit, it is sensible to have lightweight but warm and waterproof clothing. You will be more comfortable if you wear the right type of clothing for the conditions you are in.

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• Telescope. If you want to get a really close look at birds then you will need to get a bird watching scope and tripod. These are more expensive than binoculars but if you get to be serious about bird watching you will soon want to have them.

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• Camera. A simple point and shoot digital camera is good if you are close to birds, especially if you have a zoom lens. If not close enough to shoot birds it is still good to take general views or mementos of your day out. More expensive cameras, with telephoto lenses, can bring you close in to the birds.

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• Digiscoping. You can take pictures via your Scope–using it as a telephoto lens. You will need attachments for your scope.

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Code of birding ethics

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1. Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.
1. (a) Support the protection of important bird habitat.
1. (b) To avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.
   Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area;
   Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.
   Use artificial light sparingly for filming or photography, especially for close-ups.
1. (c) Before advertising the presence of a rare bird, evaluate the potential for disturbance to the bird, its surroundings, and other people in the area, and proceed only if access can be controlled, disturbance minimized, and permission has been obtained from private land-owners. The sites of rare nesting birds should be divulged only to the proper conservation authorities.
1. (d) Stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist; otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum.

2. Respect the law, and the rights of others.
2. (a) Do not enter private property without the owner’s explicit permission.
2. (b) Follow all laws, rules, and regulations governing use of roads and public areas, both at home and abroad.
2. (c) Practice common courtesy in contacts with other people. Your exemplary behavior will generate goodwill with birders and non-birders alike.

3. Ensure that feeders, nest structures, and other artificial bird environments are safe.
3. (a) Keep dispensers, water, and food clean, and free of decay or disease. It is important to feed birds continually during harsh weather.
3. (b) Maintain and clean nest structures regularly.
3. (c) If you are attracting birds to an area, ensure the birds are not exposed to predation from cats and other domestic animals, or dangers posed by artificial hazards.

4. Group birding, whether organized or impromptu, requires special care.
  Each individual in the group, in addition to the obligations spelled out in Items #1 and #2, has responsibilities as a Group Member.
4. (a) Respect the interests, rights, and skills of fellow birders, as well as people participating in other legitimate outdoor activities. Freely share your knowledge and experience, except where code 1(c) applies. Be especially helpful to beginning birders.
4. (b) If you witness unethical birding behavior, assess the situation, and intervene if you think it prudent. When interceding, inform the person(s) of the inappropriate action, and attempt, within reason, to have it stopped. If the behavior continues, document it, and notify appropriate individuals or organizations.

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Other highlights for the avid birder will be the sighting of The Great HornBill or Thrush. Learn more about the endamic, migrants and other birds in and around valparai by checking out the list

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The below list is created in the guidance of Mr. K Selva Ganesh, Cinchona Government High School, Valparai who teaches English. Along with his students, won ebird’s Great Backyard Bird Count challenge, 2017. They contributed 360 checklists of birds, the highest number in the bird count challenge, and recorded 111 species.

Images and Data courtesy Mr. K Selva Ganesh, Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia and ebird.org

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List of Endamic Birds of Western-Ghats you can see in Valparai

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List of Migrant Birds that can be seen in Valparai

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List of Other Birds you can see in Valparai

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