How many Oriental Pied Hornbills can Singapore support?

on 14th March 2013

The Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) is an iconic bird in urban Singapore (below). Large and looking spectacular with its huge bill topped with a prominent casque, it excites urbanites whenever sighted LINK. Usually a male and a female, sometimes accompanied by a juvenile, will announce their presence with characteristic high pitch cackle LINK. Unlike many birds that are shy and try not to expose themselves to humans, hornbills will not move away as long as you do not approach them too closely.

Is it a wonder then that these birds are well sought after, now that the Singapore Hornbill Project LINK has made it possible to lure them to specific urban locations with specially constructed nesting boxes LINK? We now have nesting pairs at the Istana, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Turf City, MacRitchie, Pasir Ris… mostly a result of relocation programmes.

Once locally extinct, a small population developed in the offshore island of Pulau Ubin around 1997 when a few birds flew in from the nearby Malaysian state of Johor LINK. Currently there are about 60 birds in Ubin, with a few that had moved to the northern part of the main island at Changi LINK, to join up with the small number that originated from excapees of the cage bird trade decades ago. The total population is currently estimated at 75-100 birds with 19 breeding pairs.

Hornbills breed in natural tree cavities LINK. Such cavities are well sought after by kingfishers, parakeets, corellas, etc. So there is a always a shortage of nesting holes and this has been the major limiting factor to increasing the number of hornbills in Singapore. Not so now with the introduction of nesting boxes.

The Oriental Pied Hornbill is basically a frugivore. In the wild they feed on a wide array of jungle fruits. In Singapore we have mostly figs LINK in our forests and parks as well as plenty of palms LINK planted in the urban environment. So many of the hornbills invade private gardens to feed on papaya (Carica papaya) LINK, guava (Psidium guajava) LINK, rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) LINK, etc.

These hornbills also feed on animal food, more so during the breeding periods when there is a need of a high protein diet. They take small lizards, snakes and frogs, also crustaceans like crabs LINK. Hornbills regularly raid birds’ nests for eggs and chicks LINK. They also take large insects LINK and spiders LINK.

With such sudden increase in the population of hornbills in Singapore, there is a need to study how they would impact on our fragile biodiversity. We need to find out the optimum number we can support, on the offshore island of Pulau Ubin as well as on mainland Singapore. The population on the offshore island obviously peaked years ago, as seen in the few pairs moving to Changi. The population on the mainland is fast increasing.

Is there a need to feed the hornbills or is feeding already going on? Like many birds, hornbills have the potential of depending on handouts LINK. In the Malaysian island of Pangkor, there is a large population of Oriental Pied Hornbills, especially around hotels, restaurants and food stalls LINK where they are regularly fed with leftover food. They have become a tourist attraction.

With an estimated population of 75-100 Oriental Pied Hornbills flying around Pulau Ubin and mainland Singapore and the possibility of this number increasing to 200 LINK, it is about time that we produce an hornbill equivalent of Singapore’s Population White Paper LINK.

YC Wee (text) & Johnny Wee (images)
March 2013

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.

Other posts by YC Wee

28 Responses

  1. Introducing nest boxes have proven successfully in reintroducing Pied Hornbills into the Spore environment. Maybe it is time to be rethinking of gradually removing some of them in stages as see fit.

    Unchecked, I forsee in the near future may have to introduce another programme to curtail the population when these big birds may become a nuisance to the general public especially when the birds get too used to receiving food handouts. At worst, a todler left unsupervised during a feeding frenzy may come tobe accidentally harmed or an unsavourly incident police report made by tourist/person in the press.

    Considering a controlled population of these birds that tiny dot Spore can sustain is much welcomed. It is always a delight to be surprised when taking a stroll in the Park or a car drive and suddenly a Hornbill or two fly passed and no more; or, an occasional visit of a bird in your private gardens.

    Hope the day don’t come where every tree cavity found in Spore has to be sealed off to prevent nesting of these gorgeous birds. At worse- start cutting trees down as an excuse for other ambitious progammes like some of their neighbours do.

    Worst still… Headlines in national newspapers, ‘S’pore laxes feral laws’ and reads of a charity Hornbill B-B-Q by the SANDS and have bird conservationists/websites going for the jugular. Wha!


    1. The population of the Oriental Pied Hornbill in Singapore has been controlled in the past by the limited number of natural cavities available for its nesting. There is always a fierce competition (other hole nesting birds, small mammals, etc.) for such cavities. Also, old and rotting trees where such cavities are usually found, especially in urban areas, have always been rapidly removed for safety reasons. Nesting boxes is another kettle of fish altogether…

  2. I spotted 4 of these Pied Hornbills along Linden Drive this morning. Neighbour’s commented that they have been spotted in this area for quite a while. One of the birds seems younger and less afraid of human beings

  3. Hornbills are stunningly captivating large Southeast Asian birds, harmless to humans. Their flight is awesomely majestic. It is a pity if Singaporeans show little love for such comically looking, birds with long eyelashes. It would be a huge draw for our local citizens and permanent citizens alike watching them pluck fruits from our trees lining our housing estates. Hornbills have an instinctive preference for natural forest. But if we have enough fruiting trees inside our housing estates to attract hornbills, it would be a boon for Singapore as a whole. Already Singapore now attracts temporary migratory birds that winter inside our shores.

    Our Nature Society has been up to the task on increasing the presence of hornbills in Singapore by hanging nesting boxes on mature trees in our forest.

    Thank you,

    Terry Tang

  4. True Singapore is an internationally recognized “Garden City” through thoughtful greening of the country through the expertise of our far-sighted, determined city planners since the 1960s.

    Our educated local citizens and aspiring new immigrant workers intending to become our fellow citizens one day have all been co-operating quietly by keeping Singapore sparklingly spotless. Compared to many Asian cities around us, inside our shores, our city environment has become the coveted talking point of surrounding countries due to our legendary general cleanliness. Every local citizen plays his part towards making Singapore clean and green. Lining along the long verandahs of our housing blocks are placed pot after pot of flowering plants in an unimaginable riot of colors.

  5. Like it or not, hornbills are known opportunistic nest raiders: they may gobble up the entire unfortunate nestlings inside a nest during a raid out of the blue. They are not particularly choosy over what they are going to eat so long as their tummies are full. In short they are predatory hunters. Back to the nest after a hunt, a daddy hornbill would vomit half digested foods to feed both his mate and squabbling chicks. Amongst a hornbill’s prey items are forest mice, fish, weasels, geckos, unfinished foods left by other creatures. A wild hornbill’s claws can easily puncture the body of a small animal, bleeding it to death shortly.

    Terry Tang

  6. Hi All,

    I have ever spotted owls on several rare occasions inside the Bt. Batok Nature Park. I have, however, yet to encounter any incidental appearance of a majestic pied oriental hornbill inside our estate. Hopefully when their numbers multiply overtime in sufficient numbers within our island state, they might eventually show themselves up in the leafy Bt. Batok estate. Only time will tell. In the meantime all we can do is nothing but wait with infinite patience.

    Terry Tang

  7. Our dear webmaster can speak with such confidence because Oriental Pied Hornbills have been spotted regularly in the Clementi Road/Upper Bukit Timah area, not too far from Bukit Batok.

  8. About 3-4 have been spotted regularly in my neighbourhood at Upper East Coast road (we also have some cockatoos and green parrots flying around)

  9. As visitors to Singapore we saw 3 Oriental Pied Hornbills around the swimming pool of Orchard Grand Court serviced apartments, Killiney Road. One of them hunted and caught a sparrow and proceeded to eat it without sharing with the other two hornbills (one of them looked like a juvenile). Thought this was interesting as no available data mentions their diet includes other adult birds.

  10. Just saw one Oriental Pied Hornbill yesterday morning (8 Dec 2016) at Botanic Gardens forest off the boardwalk near Nassim gate entrance.

  11. Hornbills are harmless as long as you leave them alone. When cornered they can be aggressive with their claws and large bill.

  12. 3 young Hornbills playing on the antenna on Farrer Drive 77, Sommerville Park, took some 180 photos of them, very beautiful, pictures can be made public if wanted

  13. I have no first-hand experience with hornbills, but people will generally be surprised at the longevity of many birds. For some strange reason, though most birds have an average lifespan, there will be individuals among certain species that will live to double the average. The figures I am quoting are based on the experiences of aviculturalists. Though this is not a fixed rule, in general, the larger species have longer lifespans.

    Finches and sparrows Average 4 to 5 years, Maximum over 10
    Shamas and thrushes Average 7 to 8 years, Maximum about 10
    Zebra doves Average 15, Maximum over 20
    Cockatiels Average 12 to 15, Maximum about 30
    Psittacula parakeets Average 20, Maximum over 40
    Grey parrots, lorikeets, small cockatoos Average over 30, Maximum over 60
    Crows, magpies and other corvines, Average 25, Maximum over 30
    Hill Mynahs, Average 20 to 25, Maximum over 30.
    Hornbills are large birds and could probably be expected to live long.
    One family of birds that are surprisingly short lived in captivity are the babblers. Pekin Robins and Mesias die after only a few years, and the various Laughing Thrushes don’t often last more than 10. But these are hyper-active birds and could be burning themselves out.

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