Monday, May 12, 2014

Hornbill Saga - A Lesson in Faithfulness

The link to the last Hornbill post, Incarcerated, is here

It is said that hornbills mate for life and, between the time the female was incarcerated, sometime in early February (10th or 11th) and through the subsequent two months till the female broke out of her confines in early April (? 8th), I was witness to one such saga of faith. The male hornbill after sealing his beloved into a dark and musty hole in the tree hung around for the rest of the period ensuring that his beloved would remain in good health during her enforced confinement.

11th February, 2014

He had to ensure that she was fed and her nest was ready to receive the chicks. The pair had been practicing how to take things from each other's beaks before the female entered it for the last time in the season. Hornbill beaks are not short and round like most birds. They have long beaks that are flattened from side to side and are gently curved. It seemed perfectly designed for the job at hand. Passing of food and building material through the narrow slit in the closed tree hole. At any given time only one bird's beak could go through it. It remained to be seen how that would work.

During the courting period the male practiced passing things to the female for many weeks before the confinement. (See the previous posts). That was done, sitting next to each other on an open branch. Now it was a different situation. He would only have access to her protruding beak and he would have to hold his beak perfectly angled to allow the female to grab what he had brought to her, without dropping it 20 feet below to the ground.

14th February, 2014

He had perfected his technique. He would fly in, grab the edge of the tree hole with his talons and hang on. Clinging on to the nest's edge precariously, he'd pass on the stuff he gathered to the waiting beak of his mate.

In the initial few days it was often pieces of wood or clods of mud that he gathered. Despite her confinement, the female seemed to take her housekeeping duties very seriously.

 The male would fly off in search of food and building materials. Wood was always at hand. A dried tree branch provided plenty of rotting bark. For lumps of mud, he flew elsewhere.

If the pieces were large, he'd break them into smaller pieces before offering it to his mate.

Food was a variety of berries and fruit. Mostly sourced from the fig trees found within a short distance of the nesting tree.

In each trip he would gather a number of the fruit or berry and sitting on the edge of the tree hole he'd regurgitate them one after the other with a peculiar bobbing of his head. A vigorous up-down, backward-forward movement of the head and a fruit or berry would appear in its throat.

 The most  amazing thing about this process is that only one fruit or berry would be brought up each time.

 The fruit, thus regurgitated, would then be presented to his hungry mate through the narrow slit.

After a session of feeding he would go up into the branches of the tree and wait till it was time to go foraging again.

He would spend time preening himself and probably also contemplate on the world outside. He had to kill time. 60 days is a long time in a hornbill's life!

On a few occasions I also observed a smaller bird, which appeared to be a juvenile male, join the male in feeding the confined female. Perhaps it their own child was from a previous season.

The male would fly off in the mornings and return with something for his beloved prisoner. He had, by now perfected his feeding position. Perhaps, realizing that grabbing the lower edge of the hole and trying to give stuff to the female was more risky, he was now coming in from above the nest.

17th February, 2014

23rd February, 2014

Sometimes he'd fly from the side and wedge himself in the groove between the two main branches and then hop onto the ledge formed by the upper part of the bole. This was the most effective way of getting things to his mate.

His weight would be borne by his legs and the tree against which he'd press his body. Then he just had to swing his neck down to align his beak with the opening in the hole.

He could sit like that and regurgitate each fruit or berry without the fear of slipping off. Brilliant!

There would be two main sessions in day, early morning and evening. In the mid-morning and afternoon he;d be away a little longer but always returning to check on his mate. He would sit at some vantage point and survey the scene below. The mynas were still around and he'd have to shoo them away occasionally. More worrisome were the humans. There was a constant flow of people through the abandoned depot. It appeared that there was something going on like illicit arrack or dope sale. This activity was usually in the mornings and it disturbed the birds very often.

Occasionally the male would come back with large pieces of bark. It appeared they were readying for the arrival of the chicks.

26th March, 2014

Most other times it would sit just above the hole. The broken end of the branch housed the nest of a pair of mynas. One one occasion the male seemed to get very irritated by the mynas and was trying to reach inside their nest and destroy whatever was inside.

Fortunately, he never got at whatever was inside and seemed content with the discomfiture he was putting the mynas into.

Summer this year has been harsh. Even the normal thunder showers failed to put up a show. I was wondering how the female was coping in its hole. The male would unfailingly bring her things to eat or line the nest with but it is a wonder how she was surviving in a hot and confined tree hole surrounded by her shed feathers and waste materials. 

It seemed the the female was also playing her part in housekeeping and making herself comfortable. On more than one occasion I have seen her clear the hole by taking out some stuff that seemed like the seeds from the berries she ate or residual mud and feathers. Some she'd throw out and other she'd line the edge of her tree hole which she or the male would knock down later.

All through February and March these daily events continued. The male would always ensure his mate had her fill so that she and her chicks would be healthy. 

Towards the end of March I was tied up with a wedding in the family and the camera remained at home because I could not spend much time watching the nest. Then it happened. I had calculated her confinement period to be about 60-65 days. Since February had only 28 days this year my estimated date for her break out was between the 12th and 20th of April. I had miscalculated and almost missed the day.

8th April, 2014

The wedding was over and I was free, so I had carried my camera after a short break. I saw the male come to feed but to my utter surprise the hole had been enlarged. Till the previous day the opening of the nest was a slit now it was a wide oval opening. It could only mean one thing. The female had broken out and the male was bringing food for the little ones!

He had carried his torch for his beloved for two months and now he was taking over the responsibility of being a good father. The female was not to be seen anywhere. She'd be exhausted and feeling like a dirty rag after so many weeks of confinement in a cramped space. Till she recovered father hornbill's work was not over.

That story will follow. Watch this space...................

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