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Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Body Weight 3500-6180 g (7.7-13.6 lb) 2230-4580 g (4.9-10.1 lb)
Bill Length 190-221 mm (0.6-0.7 ft) 168-215 mm (0.6-0.7 ft)
Tail Length 300-360 mm (1-1.2 ft) 290-340 mm (1-1.1 ft)

Body measurements from Kemp 1988.

General Appearance

Body shape (from Kemp 1988 unless otherwise noted)

  • Large bodied bird
    • Ground Hornbills (B. abyssinicus and B. leadbeateri) are the largest, most aberrant hornbill species (Kemp and Kemp 1975)
    • Height
      • Stands 90-100 cm tall (3-3.3 ft) (Kemp and Boesman 2013)
  • Legs and feet
    • Legs long (Kemp and Kemp 1975)
    • Black
  • Wings
    • Span to c. 4 ft
  • Tail
    • Short (Kemp and Kemp 1975)

Facial characteristics (from Kemp 1988 unless otherwise noted)

  • Bill black
    • Large, with a casque (a helmet-like structure) on top, near its base (Kemp 1988)
      • Specialization composed of a keratin sheath (Kemp and Crowe 1985)
        • The same chemical make up as fingernails and hair
      • Casque reduced in size compared to other hornbills, including B. abyssinicus (Kemp and Kemp 1980)
  • Bright-red, exposed skin
    • Color on throat extends onto the face and surrounds the eye
      • Lacks feathers on much of the face
  • Eyes
    • Yellow

Adult plumage (from Kemp 1988 unless otherwise noted)

  • Overall appearance black
  • White primary feathers on the wings
    • Become brownish when worn

Immature appearance (from Kemp 1988 unless otherwise noted)

  • Plumage
    • Sooty brown body feathers
    • Primary feathers white with flecks of black
  • Facial characteristics
    • Bill gray
    • Pale gray skin on throat and face
  • Gradually assume adult coloration
    • Initially develops red coloration of the throat c. 3 years of age (Browning 1991)

Sexual Dimorphism

Dimorphic in appearance

  • Female has violet-blue patch on throat
    • Extends down the sides of the neck at times or as spots on facial skin
    • Does not ring the eye as with Northern Ground Hornbills


Adaptations to a terrestrial life (from Kemp and Kemp 1975)

  • Long legs, short toes, and a short tail
    • Increase mobility on the ground
  • Spend long periods active on the ground
    • Walk, instead of hop on the ground

Other Characteristics

Shared hornbill features (from Kemp and Crowe 1985)

  • Skeletal characteristics
    • Cervical vertebrae
      • Axis and atlas are fused
  • Casque on top of bill
    • Skull specialized to support enlargement of the bill
  • Lashes present along the upper eyelid
    • Long and flattened

Similar species within distribution

  • Northern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus)


Southern Ground Hornbill

Northern Ground Hornbill

Facial Skin

Eyes surrounded with red skin, lacks blue in eye surround

Blue and red patches on the throat and surrounding the eyes


Casque closed at front; entirely black

Casque larger and hood-like, open at front; black with reddish-yellow spot on upper mandible

From Browning 1991; Elliot 1882; Kemp 1998.

Southern Ground Hornbill Appearance

Southern Ground Hornbill

Large charismatic birds; Ground Hornbills are the largest, most aberant hornbills. Bright-red , exposed skin on the throat extends onto the face and surrounds the eyes. Long lashes are present on the upper eye-lid. Body feathers of juveniles are a sooty brown, turning darker (black) in adults.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Browning (1991)
Elliot (1882)
Kemp (1988)
Kemp and Boesman (2013)
Kemp and Crowe (1985)
Kemp and Kemp (1975)
Kemp and Kemp (1980)

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