I was at the wheel when the vehicle took a hairpin turn and we were suddenly greeted by the thunder of a hundred wings. Right below us was a ficus tree from which, upon hearing our approaching vehicle, around 50-60 Great Hornbills took off against the low-lying mist. Even though I was unable to photograph it, the scene is seared into my memory like it was yesterday.

Working with the Netflix Our Planet team, I along with the rest of the crew visited the location the following morning and we were able to capture footage and images of about 13-15 of these majestic birds in flight.

Add More Images
The Great Hornbill or the Great Pied Hornbill is the largest among the hornbills found in India. They are primarily frugivores, and play a crucial role in seed dispersal.

My love affair with the Great Hornbill or Great Pied Hornbill started before I ever picked up a camera. It was during 2005-6 when I was part of a census in the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. I had spent the night at the Anali Estate in Valparai, and I was swept off my feet by the unexpected (for me) sighting of a Great Hornbill congregation. It was love at first sight, and I just kept going back to watch these black, white and yellow avians. Once I started shooting them, I never stopped.

Fast forward 15 years and nothing has changed, they still have my utter devotion and I've truly lost count of the number of hours I have spent observing and documenting the Great Hornbill. Here, through some of my best images, I would like to introduce you to the species and its behaviour.


Add More Images
The yellow and black casque on the Great Hornbill’s large bill is its most prominent feature. This casque develops during sexual maturity and is larger in the case of male hornbills compared to females.
Add More Images
Male hornbills are identified by the black edges in the front and back of the casque and their red eyes (as seen in the above image). Whereas, female hornbills have a red colouration at the back of their casque and white eyes (look at the hornbill pair below). 
Add More Images
Great Hornbills form monogamous pairs and breed between the months of January and April. Competing males engage in 'casque-butting' and the winner gets to present delicious fruits to the female and win her heart for life. The pair then move away from the larger flock in search of a nesting site.

Add More Images
Great Hornbills prefer tall, old trees as nesting sites. They are also known to return to the same nesting sites year after year, making it it crucial to retain large trees and protect nest areas. Native trees are also important for hornbill habitats, especially fig and other fruit trees.
Add More Images
During the nesting period, the female spends her entire time inside a sealed cavity within the tree the hornbills inhabit. There is a small opening through which the pair communicate and the male passes food.
Add More Images
Tip to photograph Great Hornbills: Like other birds, hornbills too get spooked if you rush in. But if you keep your distance and slowly approach them they will get comfortable in your presence and you can get the shot you want.
Add More Images
As natural habitats of Great Hornbills continue to shrink at an alarming pace, these majestic birds are now frequenting plantations and other disturbed areas which once they called home. Pictured here is a female hornbill perched on Maesopsis eminii, a non-native tree from Africa that these birds have adapted to.
Add More Images
Today, Valparai, an area of 220sq.km. which has nearly 40 rainforest fragments of varying sizes ranging from 0.3 to 300ha remains one of the last strongholds of the Great Hornbill.


Pooja Pawar spent eight months observing Great Hornbills in Valparai. Learn more about the species in her story Great Hornbill: Changing Habits And Habitats.