Most Asian hornbills are omnivorous, taking both plant and animal foods. However, there is a preference for fruits and small animals. And figs are the favourite, although there are reports of them feeding on rambutans (Nephelium lappaceum) as well as a great array of forest fruits.
Animals are taken by hornbills, especially during the breeding season. These include scorpions, lizards, geckos, skinks, earthworms, frogs, caterpillars, beetles, butterflies, cicadas, grasshoppers…
Great Hornbills (Buceros bicronis) feed primarily on fruits, especially figs. But they also hunt actively for small animals like snakes, lizards, bird nestlings and eggs, beetles and insects.
Figs are consumed at a rate of about 200 per sitting. The figs are delicately picked with the tips of their mandibles. But not larger figs like those of Roxburg’s fig (Ficus auriculata) (above). These are not swallowed whole but rather eaten piece by piece. Tan Teo Seng, who has a fruit farm in Kota Tinggi, Johor, reports that flocks of Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) invade these trees whenever they are covered with figs.
When hornbills swallow fruits with large seeds, these seeds are regurgitated up to an hour later undamaged. Sometimes seeds are also passed through the digestive tract, which is the case with figs as the seeds are extremely small. As such, hornbills are good seed dispersers of forest plants.
Thanks to Tan Teo Seng for his input. Image of Oriental Pied Hornbill by HK Tang and of Roxburg’s fig by YC.