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Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History and Nomenclature

Common names

  • Southern Ground Hornbill
    • Southern Ground-hornbill, or Southern Ground-Hornbill
  • Uncommonly used (early 19th century) names (from Sclater 1902)
    • Turkey Buzzard or Wild Turkey
      • Used by English colonists in South Africa
      • Name possibly due to the similar appearance of the turkey’s bright red wattle and the vermilion-red throat of the Ground Hornbill
    • Brom-vogel
      • Used among Dutch colonists in South Africa
    • Intsingizi
      • Used among Kafirs and Zulus in South Africa

Scientific name

  • Etymology
    • Genus Bucorvus from the Greek word bu meaning “an ox” and the Latin word corvus meaning “a raven” (Gotch 1995; Lederer and Burr 2014)
      • Likely meaning “an ox of a raven”, as bu can also refer to the large size of an ox
    • Specific epithet leadbeateri designated in honor of Mr. B. Leadbeater of Brewer Street
      • A specimen from his collection was the basis for the first published description of the bird (Browning 1991; Vigors 1825)
  • Synonyms (BirdLife International 2012; Browning 1991)
    • Bucorvus cafer
    • Bucorvus leadbeateri leadbeateri

Evolutionary History

Family Bucorvidae

  • The Ground Hornbills
    • Includes 2 species, both native to Africa (ITIS 2014; Kemp 1988)
      • Northern Ground Hornbill
      • Southern Ground Hornbill
  • Evolutionary placement
    • Falls within the Coraciiformes clade (grouping) of birds (Hackett et al. 2008)

Genus Bucorvus

  • Evolutionary placement
    • Closely allied with species in the genera Tockus and Lophoceros (Hackett et al. 2008)
      • A diverse group of hornbills found in Africa, extending somewhat into the Arabian peninsula (Kemp 1988)

Cultural History

Cultural beliefs (from Coetzee et al. 2014 unless otherwise noted)

  • Cultural beliefs conflicting
    • Viewed as a bad omen or evil spirit by some
      • A carrier of dead souls; particularly associated with angry, avenging, or ancestral spirits
        • Some cultures avoid the animal and discourage harming them
      • Those who see or encounter the bird will experience an impending calamity
        • Often involving the death of a loved one or destruction of personal property
      • Belief prevalent in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Malawi
    • Believed to offer protection
      • Guards one against evil spirits and witchcraft (or lightning)
        • Portions (e.g. feathers or feet) of the bird are used in traditional practices to heal the body or defend property
          • Often rubbed or smeared on the body, property, crops, or other belongings
      • Used in ceremonial practices to protect against drought (from Coetzee et al. 2014; Sclater 1902)
        • The bird (or portions of it) is suspended from a branch overhanging a riverbed
          • The bird is removed after sufficient rain has fallen
        • Special song and dance accompany the ritual
        • Belief reported from South Africa
    • Endowed with powers to enable or cause altered perception
      • Capable of remote viewing or possesses powers of prophecy
        • One may harness these powers by ingesting or sniffing the bird’s ashes before bed
        • In South Africa, local leaders may bathe with the head of the bird to assume its powers
      • Belief prevalent in Zimbabwe and Malawi
    • Seen as keepers of time
      • Calling Ground Hornbills alert people to the start or end of the day
      • Vocal call signals a change in season
        • Indicates a change from wet to dry or vice versa
          • Corresponds with the bird’s seasonal movements in portions of its range; particularly in South Africa

Traditional medicine (from Bruyns et al. 2013)

  • Customary usage
    • Utilized to get revenge on another person
    • Used to eliminate bad spirits or bring ancestral spirits to young herbalists (inyangas)
    • Employed to protect one’s possessions (e.g. home or crops ) or stop theft (Bruyns et al. 2013; Coetzee et al. 2014)
    • Used to make one’s self strong
    • Utilized to make one’s dreams come true


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Bucerotiformes

Family: Bucorvidae

Genus: Bucorvus

Species: Bucorvus leadbeateri (Vigors, 1825) – Southern Ground Hornbill

(ITIS 2015; BirdLife International 2012)

Early Rendering

drawing of a Southern Ground Hornbill

Lithogram by J.G. Keulemans appearing in D.G. Elliot's Monograph of the Bucerotidæ, or family of the hornbills (1882).

Image credit: © Available from the Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

BirdLife International (2012)
Browning (1991)
Bruyns et al. (2013)
Coetzee et al. (2014)
Gotch (1995)
Hackett et al. (2008)
ITIS (2014)
Kemp (1988)
Lederer and Burr (2014)
Sclater (1902)

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