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Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) Fact Sheet: Diet & Feeding


Consume animals (from Kemp 1988 unless otherwise noted)

  • Generalists
    • Eat any animals that can be overcome
    • Swallow most small items whole (Kemp and Kemp 1978)
    • Vigorously shake the head with larger prey held in the bill to dismember it (Kemp and Kemp 1978)
  • Most commonly eaten items
    • Reptiles, amphibians, snails, and insects (Kemp and Kemp 1980)
  • Rarely consumes carrion

Principal components of the diet (from Kemp and Kemp 1978 unless otherwise noted)

  • Reptiles and amphibians
    • Snakes
      • Puff adder (Bitis arietans) and Leptotyphlops sp
    • Lizards
      • Gerrosaurus sp, Agama atricollis, Mabuya sp, Gekkonidae, and Chamaleo sp
    • Tortoises
    • Amphibians
      • Bufo toads and tree frogs
  • Invertebrates
    • Spiders, solifugids, and scorpions
    • Insects
      • Primarily beetles, larval moths, and wasps
    • Snails
  • Small mammals
    • Squirrel, hare, rats and mice (Kemp and Kemp 1980)

Seasonal dietary shifts

  • Dig and scratch for food more often during drier periods (Kemp and Kemp 1975)
    • Secure toads, dung beetle larvae, and baboon spiders by digging



  • Searching for food (from Kemp and Kemp 1978 unless otherwise noted)
    • Forage as individuals
      • Walk in small groups searching for food on the ground (Mlingwa 1989)
        • Scan the surrounding vegetation while moving
      • Efficiency acquiring food increases with age (Knight 1990)
        • Juvenile foraging efficiency increases by over 50% over the course of the nesting season (Knight 1990)
    • Pluck food from the ground most often
      • Bill acts as forceps (Kemp and Kemp 1975)
      • Chase animals when they are disturbed; pursuit typically short
        • Run or briefly fly
      • May jump to snatch food in overhead vegetation
    • Scratch the ground and dig to capture tree frogs, lizards, spiders, and beetles
      • Feet scrape debris aside
      • Bill lifts branches and digs soil
        • Bill acts as a pick-axe to excavate dirt (Kemp and Kemp 1975)
          • Tunnel down to 40 cm (16 in) in search of toads
  • Killing prey (from Kemp and Kemp 1978 unless otherwise noted)
    • Squeeze prey between the upper and lower bill
      • Often shake the head when taking large items
  • Manipulating food (from Kemp and Kemp 1978 unless otherwise noted)
    • Eating ‘slimy’ foods
      • Wipe mucous from toads and snails, prey are swabbed  against the ground before ingesting
    • Preparing tough foods
      • Soften by repeatedly nipping with the bill
      • Break snail shells by striking them with the bill
    • Ingestion
      • Item grasped with the tip of the bill; it is then tossed into the air before it is caught and swallowed (Sclater 1902)


Southern Ground Hornbill eating

Generalists, these birds eat any animal that can be overcome. Reptiles, amphibians, snails, and insects are commonly taken; carrion is rarely consumed. After capturing their meal, birds often toss the item into the air before catching it and swallowing.

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

Page Citations

Kemp (1988)
Kemp and Kemp (1975)
Kemp and Kemp (1978)
Kemp and Kemp (1980)
Knight (1990)
Mlingwa (1989)
Sclater (1902)

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