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The avian art of seduction

The avian art of seduction

The avian art of seduction

Southern Ground Hornbills, rated on the IUCN’s Red Data List of Species as ‘Vulnerable,’ are birds we can’t afford to lose. Meet George – Zimbabwe’s sole Southern Ground Hornbill in captivity – and an endearing representative of his feathered brethren.

Be warned, if George offers you a shriveled piece of rotting meat, he’s trying to seduce you. Maybe it’s not the smoothest move, but with his striking sea-green eyes and sweeping black lashes, chances are he’ll succeed nonetheless.

It’s a tried and tested trick with Southern Ground Hornbills. Day-old chicks and long-dead snakes are common offerings. “He’ll hide dead snakes in his nest for days, waiting for any young ladies to walk past. Then he’ll shove the snake through the fence at them as a love token. That’s his natural courtship behaviour in the wild,” said Josh Stafford, manager at Kuimba Shiri Bird Park where George lives.

Ground Hornbills are known for their charisma and intelligence – and their striking (if peculiar) beauty. Up close, George’s regal dinosaurian features belong in another age. His heavy grey beak, chipped and battle-scarred (from 30 years of shoving snakes through fences, perhaps?) is almost pompous in its weightiness. With his bright green eyes – always alert and always assessing – and his stiff haughty stride, he really stands out from the other birds.

And this Bird Park favourite is fussy about who he befriends. Despite his slick approach with the ladies, he really only has eyes for his keeper, Brownie Chirwa, the Bird Park curator. Because George was hand-reared, he’s an imprint, which means he thinks he’s a person. He’s never met any other Ground Hornbills and so thinks Chirwa is his mate.

“When George is holding a food morsel there will be a fight if someone tries to take it. But with me, he offers it up,” said Chirwa. “When I sit, he sits beside me. When we play, he’s gentle with me. With the other guys, he bangs on their feet. I think he really likes me.”

And his intelligence is obvious: “The main thing is the gates. If he gets out of his cage he can still go further into the bird park. He knows which gates to push and which ones to pull. Before we put a lock on his cage he could open his door by knowing which thread to pull!”

Encounters with birds like George can change the way a person looks at wildlife and the environment. Kuimba Shiri is principally a rehab centre for birds but also functions as an educational centre where visitors have the opportunity to get close to special birds like George. Kuimba Shiri is 30 minutes from Harare CBD on the Harare – Bulawayo road. From Harare, turn left by the Turn Pike Wedzera Service Station. See our special conservation feature Wanted! Have you seen this bird? and Hornbill - Unite to save iconic bird species about the research work being done by the Mother Africa Trust.

Email: birdpark@mweb.co.zw

Visit: www.kuimbashiri.co.zw

Read more on ground hornbill from the Zambezi Traveller:
The Southern Ground Hornbill
The avian art of seduction
Counting Hornbills
Hornbill - Unite to save iconic bird species

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 09, June 2012)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Harare