Ground Hornbill Project

Rearing Southern Ground hornbills


National Zoological Gardens/Loskop Nature Reserve/Johannesburg zoo

Delecia Gunn, Jacqueline Rankin, Ronel Steenkamp, Lara Jordan


This Has Worked! Ground_Hornbill_Project_friends-of-loskop12022009312

It may not be scientific. But over twenty years it has produced fairly consistent good results. There have been no metabolic bone disease problems/skew beaks or toes.


There are different methods possible to rear these birds but it is essential to stick to one “recipe” until you are familiar with rearing. Do not think you can get away with what happens out in the wild, the situation in captivity is very different (and even out in the wild the success rate is not great)


FOOD QUALITY and quantity is probably the most critical factor for rearing Ground Hornbill Chicks. Be scrupulous about food quality. One needs exceptional quality food, and lots of it! If you’re planning to rear a few chicks you need to plan well in advance to ensure an adequate supply of good quality food available fresh at the required time. The most common problem is running out of proper food and trying to get by with “shortcuts” or with only one type of food for few days.


Give the greatest possible variety of food types to ensure the most balanced diet possible, one to compensates for any nutritional deficiencies in another.

The items used include:

  • Mice and baby mice (“Pinkies” and “fuzzies”, skinned and feet tails and muzzles removed to start with)
  • Rats and rat pups (convenient once chick is a bit larger)
  • Rabbits, use white meat and internal organs
  • Doves and pigeons (check carcass for any sign of disease!)
  • Chicks, day old and reared for a few days to a few weeks
  • Mealworms, Giant Mealworms, Crickets and Flying ants
  • Aviplus or Pronutro
  • Boiled egg
  • Snake/Reptiles (remove heads if venomous)
  • Game birds
  • Assorted commercial meat is used as a last resort, or in combination with the above foods. Red meat is best kept to an absolute minimum.


The quality of the animals raised to feed the chicks on cannot be compromised. They must be kept in good hygienic conditions and fed optimally to ensure the best possible quality feed for the chicks. Stress must be kept to minimum.

We found that they must be cared for and prepared by the person rearing the chicks, this ensures there is no drop in the quality of the food. YOU MUST KEEP A MOUSE COLONY (and probably rear chicks too)

JCW pet foods have created a mouse cube based on Onderstepoort’s requirements, which we recommend, despite it being fairly costly!

Food must be freshly killed before each feed, especially for young chicks. Re use not more than one feed.

No supplements were used no bone problems (now using Beefee, Calsup and Protexin) Beware of over supplementingGround_Hornbill_Project_friends-of-loskop12022009313

Day old chicks (yes, that good old standby) must be quick frozen after slaughter. Defrost on Albany bread tray overnight on newspaper. Sometimes need to place in sun to warm up sometimes decomposing (select carefully)! Remove skin and yolk! USE THE MEAT, liver and heart. Initially with no bone/ cartilage, later start using the neck bones as these are smaller and round as, chick grows leave long bones in but chop/crush into smaller sections with scissors

Cockerels that have been reared for a few days or a few weeks can provide bigger parcels of food and are therefore less laborious. They can also be fed freshly killed.

There’s usually a lot of wastage of food, so it’s helpful to have some other predator or adult birds to feed this to otherwise there is a huge attraction of flies


HOUSING the bird should be kept physically and emotionally comfortable. These birds are both physically and emotionally challenging. Changes should be gradual


Temperature control of the environment is important as Ground Hornbills remain featherless for an extended period. Bird must not be able to touch heat source! (burns and stress) They breed in fairly warm/humid areas so

Humidity is also important it is kept high; any loss must be compensated for, this is particularly critical in Ground hornbills that normally only breed after the first rains. Delecia has observed a dramatic improvement in the bird after the first rains as they do not flake/peel. Whatever is lost through the skin needs to be replaced in the diet.(and this is limited) This can be done through the use of a plate with water or sponges, but beware of drowning! a dish with water is supplied to ensure the humidity is high, this must be out of reach or have paper towel in it/sponges. Related to this is airflow is important (as the brooders air can become very foul) but not extreme (fans also desiccate the chick and the noise may not be ideal)

Noise: do not house with other noisy species/ avoid loud noise, however some background noise may help to get  them used to it and disguise other noises, if they/ve been kept in total silence and there’s suddenly an unexpected noise they may be stressed(it is unquestionable that the stresses may influence the chick metabolism, including bone formation)

Safety: look at all possible aspects


Mixed sources/species may bring in disease, so too may food from dubious origins



House the chick in a ceramic bowl within the broGround_Hornbill_Project_friends-of-loskop3oder.

A layer of non slip is placed with a layer of tissue/kitchen roll and another layer of non slip so that the birds legs do not splay out(and the paper does not slip out from under bird)

Paper has a rough (indented) pattern and it is further scrunched into a ball before being used, extra paper balls are placed to use up extra space in bowl when necessary

Keep a second bowl in brooder, after each feed place bird in clean bowl; this way it is already warmed up and one can monitor fecal output at each meal, (and avoid a heart attack at the next feed if blood from the food has landed on the paper towel)



Use a water bath system with an aquarium heater, though the temperature control can be a bit tricky and they have to be checked for leaks and functional thermostats at beginning of each season.

They are silent, there is no light clicking on and off, there is no constant buzz of a fan, there is no constant blow of air and dehydration of the chick.

A second thermometer is kept within the brooder to check the temperature, monitor at each feed as well as the birds comfort level

The humidity stops the skin peeling, even within the brooders the effect of environmental humidity (arrival of rains) cannot be ignored, there is a noticeable difference with the eyes opening earlier and easier when the chick hatches once the rains have arrived.


From the ceramic bowl the chick progresses to a quarter of the brooder, cordoned off with paper towel rolls. Newspaper non slip/ /paper towel, non slip.  Small changes at a time and monitor for vocalizations

One chick per brooder as otherwise they lunge at each other (and the air gets quite miff!)

Newspaper on base of brooder, layer of non slip, then eventually progress to leaves in a thick layer (these increase the humidity within the brooder if they are fresh and green, this must be monitored and used to your advantage, green leaves are less slippery.)


Sunshine/exercise/socializing Variable amounts required

Build it up steadilyGround_Hornbill_Project_friends-of-loskop4

Vital for good physical and mental development too

Sunbathing birds: preening

Put the birds in the sun briefly from day 2 (weather permitting). Vets will disagree with this! But I have yet to find a good reason NOT to put the birds out in the sun. They show an appreciation of being put out in the sun SUNLIGHT from day one

Do not leave unsupervised/monitor continually for comfort/stress/overheating

In dappled shade


When the chicks are about 15 days they are then put into a puppy pen next to the aviary in which the adult birds are kept.  This is done during the day from 10:00-18:00. starting at 10 minutes and gradually increasing the time, the bird gets accustomed to the outdoors (otherwise get intimidated by new environment) Enclose the chicks to protect them from predators.  A puppy pen however does not allow the adults to feed the chick, in which case another plan needs to be made to allow interaction and feeding between adults and the chick. Monitor the chick if it shows stress take it back and try again the next day.


Once the birds start to stand they are transferred into a passage way/introduction camp which runs next to the aviary where they learn to walk and perch (The perches are only a few cm off the ground as the chick cannot fly yet).


At about 3 months the chicks are introduced into the larger aviary with the older birds where they learn to fly.


Brooder box pic

IR Heating lamps


Position/orientation of brooder is not moved, at Loskop they are N-S.


Fed from 5am (an early start allows for time crises during the day) or at least give Ringer’s lactate after weighing, if time is an issue


Weighing daily pre first feed

If in crisis or rushed give Ringer’s lactate for a feed and get back to chick later. It is always better to skip a meal and have a slightly hungry bird than to make some other mistake (burn it /drop it/overfeed it.


Sometimes chicks fall out of bowls, or get their heads stuck over the bowl or between bowl and brooder this is where it is helpful to be within earshot and you will hear the distress calls and be able to correct the situation.

Sometimes they move up into a corner and may eventually tip themselves over.


Socialization to adults/training



  • Natural imprinting: normal behaviour the use of “ghosts”
  • Various stages/degrees in different types of birds
  • Use it to your advantage
  • Certain behaviour will be “instinctive” hard wired
  • An Imprint may make an excellent parent
  • Not just a question of avoiding malimprinting,
  • Need to learn own species: isolation does not necessarily work
  • Black outfits for rearing
  • Visual and auditory


Social Imprinting

  • Surrogate parent: own/other species
  • Group rearing
  • Chick of other species
  • Use feather dusters Towels over boxes
  • One way mirrors and puppets
  • Single “parent”: specific individual
  • Socialize for tame animals
  • Teach fear if for release
  • Degree is variable




Start with Ringer’s lactate (watch for Feces first!)


Chick is taken out of brooder in bowl for feeds and placed at a comfortable height

Pinkies, remove feet/tail/muzzle. Leave guts and milk bag. The pinkies are freshly removed from their mothers and not stressed or starved or dehydrated!

  • Day  1 – 0.5 ml Ringers lactate every 2 hrs from 7:00-22:00
  • Day 2 – 1ml  Ringers lactate 8 times per day (above what is given with the food) with newborn pinkies (up to two) every two hours
  • Day 3 – new born pinky (up to two) or two flying ants
  • Day 4 – same as day 3
  • Day 6 – Moth’s
  • Day 7 – mealworms.  6 feeds every two hours


The chick will become fussy and difficult between day 5 and 8, do not make changes during this “terrible two’s” stage. The feaces will change during this stage becoming watery and a pale green colour.  Reduce the amount of ringers lactate given.

Between day 15 and twenty the chick will begin pushing out pin feathers and they become irritable. It is wise not to stress the birds during this “teenage” stage.  Its during this time that the female would leave the nest.


If the ambient temperature is to hot/cold then do not feed. Correct the temperature, allow the chick to stabilize and then feed it.


When adults have chick in the nest all the food given to them is also prepared this way. This is a tremendously laborious process!



React to noise from start.

Day 3-5 turn from pink to blue black (starting at tail and working way forward

Airsacs under the skin are normal, blow up like a balloon and have led to their name in the Gunn household of “bubblegum birds”. Initially Dr Richard Burroughs and self were in panic suspecting some clostridia infection, till Alan Kemp reassured us that’s how they normally look!

Eyes start slitting open at day 7 this will vary with the Humidity


Day fourteen pin feather developing

Day 15 – bird may get touchy


Once the chick is past day 20 you can start introducing bones to the food .


Weight gain and growth curves: after the first three chick successes in 1993 we put the birds growth curves on a table which allowed us to compare the progress of chicks against a “normal” range


Feathers It is vital to ensure they are in peak condition



Insulation from temperature


Synthesis of Vitamin D


Chick should be able to preen

Some take a long while to moult

Damage to them may be permanent

Fret mark

New feather is supported by others



Socialization to adults: can hear them from day 1

When group is calling open up the brooder lid

Put in puppy pen for sunlight next to them




Safe When bigger onto leaves, eventually braches



Slip proof: avoid damage to tendons

A flat surface is not normal: slipping

Beware splayed legs

Beware of bird eating substrate (this should not be a problem if the bird is well fed and

Beware of entanglement (cotton wool)

Changes with age

Must be kept clean




  • Estimate growth curve
  • Get fledging time and adult weight
  • Speak to someone who has reared successfully pick up the phone!Go visit.
  • Compare with a similar species
  • Chart your birds growth
  • Birds grow very fast
  • Fast metabolism
  • Need large amounts of food to support this
  • In some species must limit growth
  • Feeding implements
  • Tweezers
  • Syringes
  • Plates
  • All must be cleaned immediately after use



  • Hygiene
  • Frequency
  • Food temperature
  • Good to give gut a break to empty
  • Only when bird is begging actively
  • Only when bird has defecated since last feed
  • If bird is stressed give fluids till stabilized


Aspiration of food


  • Due to careless/hurried feeding
  • Trying to feed too quickly, or a bird that is not in a state to eat
  • If giving fluids bird must be able to swallow
  • Tube feeding incorrectly/too much
  • May happen with a bird that is weak: if necessary use injected fluids till stronger



  • Captive vs Natural situation (big difference)
  • Prevent disease transmission
  • Prevent bacterial build up
  • Feather damage
  • Discomfort for chick
  • Dirt on face etc, bacterial/fungal growth under it
  • Keep the area clean
  • Keep the bird clean
  • Prepare food hygienically


Beware what chemicals you use for this

NO disinfectants/sterilizers/antiseptics/ ARE USED FOR CLEANING, but hygienic practices are followed and things are kept clean.

Wash everything in detergent, rinse well and put out in sun to dry




  • Spend time observing the bird
  • Posture (hot/cold?)
  • Vocalization: hungry/in pain/imprint
  • Behaviour
  • Development
  • Weight
  • Body condition





  • Impaction
  • Infection
  • Stress


Growth problems

  • Too fast or too slow can be a problem
  • Growth chart really helps here
  • If chick goes “quiet” you can check growth
  • In cranes important to keep it down or problems may occur, this does not seem to be the case with SGH
  • Bird may not be handling the food and kidney damage may ensue (gout)
  • Too low and bird becomes seriously imprinted: behavior may persist forever



  • Internal/external parasites can deplete a chick of its nutrition
  • Especially if birds have come in from the wild
  • Ground feeders/insectivorous birds may have tapeworm that obstructs the gut
  • Mites can drain a chick of blood
  • These can kill a chick
  • Deformities
  • Deformities
  • Watch out for how you feed
  • May physically damage beak/head
  • Skew toes: incubation/inbreeding/dietary. Can correct some a bit
  • Constricted toes: humidity too low, may cut off circulation
  • Remember chick comes from egg: parents have a huge influence here: genetics and nutrition


Digestive system problems

  • Impaction
  • May indicate general disease/stress
  • Food consistency
  • Keep giving fluid to help clear
  • Monitor fecal output
  • Do not try to take shortcut by feeding more less frequently: distended gut, low growth

Food temperature: burnt crop Food temperature is usually not a problem as food has been freshly killed. When refrigerated, allowed to reach room temp or the bowl containing the food is floated in warm water, ringer’s lactate is added to wet the food.(NO MICROWAVE!) if sun is used protect from flies.




When things go wrong:

  • If the birds get dehydrated (the throat pouches go flat) use oral fluids, correct the environmental humidity
  • Avoid injections in these chicks, rather go for oral fluids/antibiotics, they have a thin, fairly non elastic skin and bruise at injection sites.
  • Impaction: caused by pieces of food/roughage that cannot pass through the gut ; discovered by the lack of solids in the faeces at worst the bird vomits/regurgitates bits of skin/bone or
  • Give Duphalac, however be aware that this will cause further dehydration, so compensate for it and increase fluid intake dramatically and monitor bird carefully


Bone Problems

  • Bone development
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Sunshine
  • Growth rate
  • Fractures
  • Bent bones
  • “angel wings”
  • Seem fine till a critical point is reached


Behavioural problems

  • Eat Bedding: bored/hungry
  • Mal-imprinted
  • Aggression to humans
  • Aggression to own species
  • Misfit with own species
  • Overly tame
  • Fearful
  • Self mutilation


Rearing chicks (general principles)

  1. Never work with these birds if you’re stressed
  2. No shortcuts


Whilst we endeavour to ensure that the information published above is correct, please be aware that all information contained herein is derived from our own experiences and we do not warrant its completeness or accuracy.
Furthermore, we will not be liable for any direct, indirect or consequential loss or damage arising from the application of the information contained on our website.
The information on this website is provided free of charge, and you acknowledge that it would be unreasonable to hold us liable in respect of this website and the information published herein.
Birds and animals are individuals and may require different care procedures in order to produce consistently good results.


Ground Hornbill Breeding Project Friends of Loskop Critical Road To Freedom VideoThreatened with extinction ” The Ground-Hornbill’s critical walk to freedom ” is a truly inspiring conservation story. Produced by Birds of a Feather and sponsored by W W F THE GREEN TRUST and Sasol this documentary tells the remarkable and poignant story of how Ann Turner founded the Ground-Hornbill Research and Conservation project.