The Call of the Helmeted Hornbill

Up to 1.7 metres in length (including the 50cm long tail), with a leathery, wrinkled face and sporting a bony casque on top of it’s beak, the bizarre Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) looks like a survivor from the Cretaceous era.

The call of this species is almost as amazing as it’s appearance –  a series of gradually accelerating ‘toop’ notes which build up over a few minutes and climax with a mad cackling laugh. In some audio recordings I have made of this species the call in it’s entirety is almost 5 minutes long!

Sadly, the Helmeted Hornbill is now considered critically endangered, mainly due to poaching for its casque. Habitat loss is also a major issue affecting this species as it relies on very old, large trees with hollows for nesting.

Listen to calls of the Helmeted Hornbill

HHO1 This first recording is an example of the iconic call of the Helmeted Hornbill. A single male bird was perched high in the canopy above the microphones and made one call series before it flew off. Recorded in Tawau Hills, Sabah, Malaysia.


HHO2 This second recording is an example of a long call series from a Helmeted Hornbill. Recorded in Taman Negara, Malaysia.

Helmeted Hornbill by Carel P. Brest

Helmeted Hornbill painting by Carel P. Brest (License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Helmeted Hornbills are omnivorous, feeding mainly on fruiting rainforest figs, but occasionally taking insects, small mammals and birds. Apparently this species performs extraordinary displays in flight, where individuals line each other up & collide in mid-air, their bony casques clashing with an audible knock. This jousting results in one or both hornbills being flung backwards, before righting themselves again in flight. Such collisions have been observed near fruiting trees, suggesting the birds are territorial & fighting for access to their favourite food supply. I’d love to see a video of this, or even better a live performance!

Additionally, like other hornbill species, the Helmeted Hornbill’s nesting habits are rather unusual. A pair of hornbills select a hollow, high up in a rainforest tree & dig about in it with their beaks and casques until it is of suitable dimensions. Then the female enters inside, while the male seals her in using mud, leaving only a narrow slit through which he can feed her. She remains imprisoned in her nest to incubate the eggs, relying on the male to bring her food. Eventually, when the chicks hatch, she breaks out of the hollow, then reseals it again from outside, as she joins the male in bringing food to the nest until the young have fledged.

Spectrogram showing the call of the Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) – a series of accelerating notes building to a cackling crescendo!