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Chicks Hatch at the National Zoo; Red-billed Hornbill and Temminck's Tragopan Chicks Call Bird House Home

One, possibly two, red-billed hornbill chicks hatched in early May at the National Zoo’s Bird House. This is the first red-billed hornbill hatching at the Zoo since 1994. However, due to this species’ peculiar nesting behavior, it was only recently that keepers have been able to confirm one chick.

“When the female of this species is satisfied that she’s found just the right home for her chicks in a tree, rock face or another nest, she gives it her final seal of approval—literally,” said Kathy Brader, bird keeper. “Using mud, droppings and food, the male helps the female wall herself into the nest, leaving a narrow vertical slit as her only opening to the outside world. Due to the nature of the way she is sealed in, we could only verify one chick, but there is a good possibility there may be another.”

This hen is the same female that last had a chick at the Zoo 16 years ago. The nest can be seen from the public side of the exhibit, and visitors can easily watch the male take food to the nest for the female and the chick(s). After laying the eggs, and over the course of eight weeks while inside the nest, the hen will molt her flight feathers and lose the ability to fly. She will depend entirely on her mate to deliver food to her through the slit while she lays and incubates their eggs.

When the chicks are a third to half grown, the female chips a hole in the nest wall and emerges with new flight feathers, never to return to the inside of the nest. The chicks reseal the hole she has made but leave another narrow opening through which the parents can feed them. Once they are grown and ready to leave their parents, the chicks make their own opening in the nest and emerge. When they do, they will be fully feathered juveniles.

The red-billed hornbill is a relatively small species of hornbill with white-and-gray coloring, a long tail and a long, decurved red bill that lacks a casque—the growth above the bill of hornbills. The sexes look similar, but the female has a smaller bill. Red-billed hornbills are found in savanna and woodland areas of sub-Saharan Africa. They are listed as a species of least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Also making its spring debut at the Zoo’s Bird House is a Temminck’s Tragopan pheasant chick that hatched May 24. There were three chicks, but only one survived, largely because of the veterinary and animal care staff’s assistance with the hatch event and supportive care afterward. The bird spent its first few days in an intensive care brooder unit receiving frequent feedings. Currently it is being hand-reared off exhibit, but the sire and dam can be seen by visitors in the outdoor flight aviary.

Temminck’s Tragopans live in the evergreens and mixed forests of Vietnam, India, Tibet and China. They live alone or in pairs and unlike other pheasants, nest in trees. Tragopans are horned, have short bills and their tail feathers are shorter than their wing length. In addition to the red patches on the males’ necks, Tragopans have other distinguishing gender characteristics. Females have gray, brown and black wings used to camouflage with the forest. Males are more noticeable with blue faces and large black circles around their eyes. During mating season (March through April), a male Tragopan will inflate the vivid, red patches on their necks, move their tails, erect the horns above their eyes and dance to court females. Eggs are typically laid in early May and incubate for 26 to 30 days before hatching. Remarkably, within 24 hours of hatching the chicks can run, and after three days they are capable of flying.

The species is not listed as endangered, however there is a fear of habitat loss due to deforestation.