The Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) is an iconic bird in urban Singapore (below). Large and looking spectacular with its huge bill topped with a prominent casque, it excites urbanites whenever sighted LINK. Usually a male and a female, sometimes accompanied by a juvenile, will announce their presence with characteristic high pitch cackle LINK. Unlike many birds that are shy and try not to expose themselves to humans, hornbills will not move away as long as you do not approach them too closely.
Is it a wonder then that these birds are well sought after, now that the Singapore Hornbill Project LINK has made it possible to lure them to specific urban locations with specially constructed nesting boxes LINK? We now have nesting pairs at the Istana, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Turf City, MacRitchie, Pasir Ris… mostly a result of relocation programmes.
Once locally extinct, a small population developed in the offshore island of Pulau Ubin around 1997 when a few birds flew in from the nearby Malaysian state of Johor LINK. Currently there are about 60 birds in Ubin, with a few that had moved to the northern part of the main island at Changi LINK, to join up with the small number that originated from excapees of the cage bird trade decades ago. The total population is currently estimated at 75-100 birds with 19 breeding pairs.
Hornbills breed in natural tree cavities LINK. Such cavities are well sought after by kingfishers, parakeets, corellas, etc. So there is a always a shortage of nesting holes and this has been the major limiting factor to increasing the number of hornbills in Singapore. Not so now with the introduction of nesting boxes.
The Oriental Pied Hornbill is basically a frugivore. In the wild they feed on a wide array of jungle fruits. In Singapore we have mostly figs LINK in our forests and parks as well as plenty of palms LINK planted in the urban environment. So many of the hornbills invade private gardens to feed on papaya (Carica papaya) LINK, guava (Psidium guajava) LINK, rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) LINK, etc.
These hornbills also feed on animal food, more so during the breeding periods when there is a need of a high protein diet. They take small lizards, snakes and frogs, also crustaceans like crabs LINK. Hornbills regularly raid birds’ nests for eggs and chicks LINK. They also take large insects LINK and spiders LINK.
With such sudden increase in the population of hornbills in Singapore, there is a need to study how they would impact on our fragile biodiversity. We need to find out the optimum number we can support, on the offshore island of Pulau Ubin as well as on mainland Singapore. The population on the offshore island obviously peaked years ago, as seen in the few pairs moving to Changi. The population on the mainland is fast increasing.
Is there a need to feed the hornbills or is feeding already going on? Like many birds, hornbills have the potential of depending on handouts LINK. In the Malaysian island of Pangkor, there is a large population of Oriental Pied Hornbills, especially around hotels, restaurants and food stalls LINK where they are regularly fed with leftover food. They have become a tourist attraction.
With an estimated population of 75-100 Oriental Pied Hornbills flying around Pulau Ubin and mainland Singapore and the possibility of this number increasing to 200 LINK, it is about time that we produce an hornbill equivalent of Singapore’s Population White Paper LINK.
YC Wee (text) & Johnny Wee (images)