Picture this. You are walking through the wilderness of the Western Ghats. The forest is alive with all kinds of sounds; the rustle of leaves, the distant booming call of a langur, if you are lucky, and the songs of numerous birds. Amidst this symphony, you hear a distinct guttural sound which resembles that of a growling dog. You look up instead of looking around because you know the source of this call. A flash of yellow and black confirms your assumption. The majestic Great Indian Hornbill!

You may want to fish out your camera and photograph the colourful bird with the oversized beak, but it's time for you to do more. Hornbill Watch (HW), a citizen science initiative active for eight years, is a collection of serendipitous and patient hornbill sightings. Your visual documentation of the bird will join a repository of sightings reported by others like you from across the country to provide valuable information about this large forest avifauna.

It is alright if you only have poor quality images or those shot from afar on a phone. The citizen science initiative welcomes records of sightings without images and with just the associated location and date information. The portal also welcomes records of dead hornbills (whether due to poaching, predation or disease/accident) and of hornbills in captivity (aside from those in legitimate zoos).

Malabar Pied Hornbill perched on a naked tree branch
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Malabar Pied Hornbills are endemic to the tropical forests of India and Sri Lanka. Despite their name, they are found across the Western Ghats and in parts of central India. Photograph: Kalyan Varma

India is home to nine hornbill species, and these charismatic birds are known for their vital role in seed dispersion. While the Great Indian Hornbill is the most prominent among them, the Indian Grey Hornbill is the most common. India is also home to other species like the Rufous-necked, Wreathed, Narcondam, Malabar Pied, White-throated, Austen’s Brown, Oriental Pied and the Malabar Grey Hornbill. A detailed account of each species, their diet, breeding information and the threats they face are also outlined on the website to help you better understand the country’s hornbills.

Beyond basic information and a seamless platform to upload hornbill sightings, the Hornbill Watch initiative summarises the data into detailed reports, thereby shining a light on their habitats, flock sizes, nesting habits and other behaviours. The Hornbill Watch Report of July 2020, for example, is based on hornbill sightings documented by more than 500 people. The report shares percentage-wise data for hornbills reported across states and union territories of India and an understanding of their distribution in protected and non-protected areas.

For their efforts, Hornbill Watch is listed on the CitSci India platform and has participated and presented at the third Citizen Science Conference in November 2022.

Hornbill Watch 'Report Your Sighting' Page
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Hornbill Watch provides a seamless platform to upload hornbill sightings.

“Since its launch, HW has received 938 records from 430 people, covering nine Indian hornbill species, indicating that this platform holds a lot of promise for long-term monitoring of hornbill distribution in India,” write Datta et. al. in Hornbill Watch: A citizen science initiative for Indian hornbills. The authors elaborate on how the programme provides vital information on the endangered Narcondam Hornbill, whose habitat is restricted to a six-kilometre radius in Narcondam Island, and near-threatened hornbills like the Rufous-necked Hornbill, among others.

This is a crucial time for hornbills when climate change and habitat modification are wreaking havoc on their breeding, roosting and feeding behaviours while posing severe challenges to their existence. Nationwide data collected by the programme will enable us to devise species-specific conservation measures for these farmers of the forests. So, the next time you see a hornbill, you know the drill!

To learn more and document your sightings, visit Hornbill Watch.