Plain-pouched Hornbill’s eyelashes

on 23rd October 2008

A post on eyelashes in birds way back in March 2007 brought a comment by Nardia Thompson recently:

“I can tell you for a fact that there are several different types of birds that have eyelashes. When I was a tot we went to a petting zoo. Atop a pile of rocks was a solid black bird with a very long black beak. This bird had “showgirl” eyelashes. I noticed them from afar. I asked the keeper if I could pet the bird and he said “You can try…” and to a kid that sounds like “Sure! Go ahead!” I climbed the pile of rocks and had a good look at the bird and petted him. The eyelashes were unbelievably thick and long. This raised a number of questions in my young mind because I had never seen a bird with eyelashes before (not that I had noticed anyway) and I wasn’t sure they were even real. This made me wonder ‘Just how bored does a petting zoo keeper have to get to glue eyelashes on a bird, and what sort of glue did he use?’

“Ever since I have been on a quest to find out exactly WHAT these eyelashes were (are they the same as hairs? What makes them different from hair exactly, etc.) and what they were for. The keeper told me that the bird was probably from Africa, but he wasn’t sure. I have never seen this bird pictured anywhere and would love to know what kind of bird it was. I am so glad that I am not the only person who has noticed eyelashes on birds.”

Forest Ang had an encounter with a rescued Plain-pouched Hornbill (Rhyticeros subruficollis) in Malaysia recently. Of the many images he submitted, one shows the long eyelashes of this hornbill as showcased above.

These eyelashes are highly specialised contour feathers where the rachis or feather shaft lacks barbs. Such bristles are found at the base of the bill. Ornithologists term these rictal bristles. And rictal bristles are seen in many species of birds that catch insects, like nightjars, flycatchers, owls, swallows and hawks.

There appears to be consensus that these eyelashes protect the eyes from flying insects and other debris, especially when the bird catches large scaly insects like butterflies and moths. Rictal bristles also help the bird to detect movements of insects held in the bill, just like the whiskers of some mammals.

Image by Forest Ang.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

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