The sexes look alike but at 3 years old the male has all red facial skin, the female has a patch of violet blue below the bill and the juveniles have cream facial skin.
Southern Ground Hornbills live in groups of up to 8 individuals usually with one dominant pair and several ‘helper’ males. Some females prefer a solitary life and will move away from the group to live on their own. Ground Hornbills are thought to be the only adult bird which plays. Ground Hornbills spend most of the time feeding on the ground. They are predominantly carnivorous, feeding on insects, reptiles, frogs, small birds and animals.
At present Ground Hornbills are “vulnerable” numbering possibly only 1,500 in South Africa and declining. Groups consist of 2-8 birds with one breeding pair.
Hornbills are known for ‘walling up their mate’ when incubating eggs leaving just a small hole for food to be dropped through, the Southern Ground Hornbill is the only hornbill not to do this. Nesting in large natural cavities in trees or in rock faces, they lay 1-2 eggs.
There is a gap of 3-7 days between the eggs being laid, they will then hatch the same time apart so one of the chicks will be 3-7 days older than the other. By the time the second chick hatches the first can weigh up to 250g so can easily out compete it's younger sibling to food, therefore the second chick nearly always dies of starvation.
They are strong fliers. They roost in tall trees at night to escape predators, however because they forage on the ground they are exposed to leopard, caracal, crocodile and baboon.
Over the past 50 years they have lost over 70% of their habitat to farming. Loss of large trees for nesting, secondary poisoning, secondary trapping and snaring, the exotic bird trade, and ancient cultural uses also contribute to the rapid decline in numbers. Poison traps and snares kill whole groups of Ground Hornbills as well as other animals.