Once upon a time, there were three species of hornbills present in Singapore. However, due to rapid development and large-scale deforestation, all three species became extinct in the late 19th century.
One species, the Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris convexus), has made a comeback. There are many of this bird in the offshore island of Pulau Ubin. The original nucleus probably arrived years ago from nearby Johor, Malaysia. On mainland Singapore they are also present, probably originating from a pair of escapees. These birds have now established themselves and are actively breeding.
Many sightings have been reported from mainland Singapore during the last few years, from areas around Kent Ridge, Bukit Timah, Sembawang, Seletar, etc. They often visit urban gardens, foraging for fruits like rambutans and figs. In most cases the birds were shy, flying off when approached.
This year alone there have been a number of sightings. In January, Fuhai Heng saw a family group comprising father, mother and a juvenile in Sembawang. In February, Johnny Wee encountered one feasting on rambutan fruits in Yio Chu Kang Gardens. And Angie Ng saw her pair in an angsana tree (Pterocarpus indicus) next to Changi Meridian Hotel. Similarly Goh Si Guim encountered a pair during his nature walk, examining a cavity in a pulai tree (Alstonia sp.). This pair was obviously looking for a sutitable nesting hole. Also in February, Vilma d’Rozario’s colleague Angelia spotted one flying across the Pan Island Expressway, along that stretch between Eng Neo and Bukit Timah exits. James Heng similarly saw a bird in Upper Seletar Reservoir.
Reporting from Binjai Park, Marisa Keller wrote in saying that the bird was commonly seen around her neighbourhood. She first sighted two birds in July 2005, some juveniles on 15th October and three birds on 30th October. Marisa says: “In the 13 years I live here I never saw or heard a Pied Hornbill.”
Our bird specialist R. Subaraj has this to say: “There have been several hornbill sightings, of various species, over the years and from various parts of Singapore. While all are regarded as escapees, we cannot be entirely certain that we do not receive strays from Malaysia. Based on the locations of the above reports, it may be that most were Oriental Pied Hornbills as three have been seen off and on at the Bukit Tinggi/Binjai Park area. These may be part of a feral population that started years ago at Upper Seletar Reservoir. The other possibilities are Great Hornbill (Buceros bicronis) or Rhinoceros Hornbill (B. rhinoceros), as there appears to be one of each at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.”
Hornbills are still around in Singapore. So the next time you see a large black and white bird with a large and prominent beak flapping noisily about, chances are that the bird is a hornbill.
Input by Fuhai Heng, Goh Si Guim, James Heng, Vilma D’Rozario, Johnny Wee, Marisa Keller and R Subaraj. Images from top down: YC, Johnny Wee, Fuhai Heng and Marisa Keller.