Austen’s Brown Hornbill Anorrhinus austeni is one of India’s rarest species of hornbill. It is distributed across many of the North-eastern states, with strongholds in Namdapha National Park, Arunachal Pradesh and the Dehing Patkai landscape in Assam. It has also been documented in the Barail Range (South Assam Hills), Manipur, Nagaland, as well as Mizoram, where the “Vangai” is the subject of fascinating local traditions.
The Brown Hornbill is found in lowland or foothill forests, and doesn’t go higher than 1000msl. Outside of India, it occurs in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, although their population status is equally of concern. The close relative of Austen’s Brown Hornbill—Tickell’s Brown Hornbill A. tickelli—is restricted to a small area of Southern Myanmar and Western Thailand.
In Dehing Patkai, the hornbill is found across much of the sanctuary. I have personally encountered them on almost every trail. Interestingly, they are also found in the forest fragments of Kakojan and Doom Dooma, which were once connected to the larger Dehing Patkai landscape but now remain as isolated fragments marooned between tea gardens and agriculture. The hornbills are, however, incredibly difficult to spot. For the first three months of my stay at Dehing Patkai, I did not see or hear the bird. It was only at the onset of spring that I had my first sighting (with many subsequently). I remember the day clearly—I was just wrapping up fieldwork and heading out of the Soraipung trail late morning. Just at the entrance, I heard this weird call I had never heard before—a series of high-pitched squeals and screams. I was immediately on alert and, very soon, saw these big brown birds flying into a fruiting tree—Brown Hornbills! In fact, as we waited quietly and observed the tree, more and more individuals came flying in, calling loudly as if to announce their arrival. We counted roughly 15 individuals that day. On subsequent days, we saw them more frequently. With the onset of the breeding season, the birds were busy preparing to nest, which explained their ubiquitous presence. They also congregate in fruiting trees and spend long hours foraging. Although difficult to spot, visiting the park in the right season and spending some good time and effort might just make you lucky!
Austen’s Brown Hornbill is a medium-sized hornbill (60-65cm) with an overall drab brown plumage and white-tipped tail. (In fact, hunting of Brown Hornbills is not as pronounced as other hornbills owing to their small size and “lack of spectacular striking plumage”.)
The male Brown Hornbill has white cheeks and throat, and a dirty, pale cream-coloured bill. The female lacks the white on the throat and cheeks. Juveniles are similar to males, but have dull yellow facial skin and a pinkish orbital ring; only when they moult at about one-year-old do they develop differences between the sexes.
Brown Hornbills are also more gregarious than others of their family, and sighting a flock of 5–8 individuals is common.
An interesting aspect of the Brown Hornbill is that it is the only cooperative breeding hornbill in India—which means that the female is taken care of by its mate and his “helpers”. These helpers constitute younger males and sometimes, females. This is unlike other hornbills in which the female is nursed exclusively by its partner. They begin nesting in March and continue to do so for three months.
Austen’s Brown Hornbill is listed as near-threatened. It is typically found in old-growth forests. Habitat destruction and fragmentation across much of its range has had a significant impact on the population. Loss of old trees can also impact their nesting because they nest in trees with a wide girth. Hunting in several parts of its range has also been documented, although there are no studies that have conclusively found whether they have had an impact. In fact, in many cultures, killing a male hornbill while the female is nesting is considered as taboo, as they believe that the death of the male will also result in the death of the female and its offspring: thus, ending a family. Nonetheless, all of these factors have rendered the species very difficult to encounter. This makes Dehing Patkai special because it is one of the strongholds for the species, and a conservation plan for the species and landscape is warranted.
Despite these serious threats, there are positive signs for Austen’s Brown Hornbill and other hornbills in India’s Northeast. Read about the Hope for Hornbills, including steps such as the Hornbill Nest Adoption Program, an initiative of India’s Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), in partnership with local communities and the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department.
Our thanks go to Bhaskar Bora, Aparajita Datta and Rohit Naniwadekar, of the Eastern Himalaya Programme of NCF, for the use of their photos.
- Ved, N., 2011. Hornbills in southern Mizoram: history, beliefs, and recent sightings. Indian BIRDS 7 (4): 117–119.
- Jain, A., & Sumashini, P. S., 2020. Occurrences of hornbills (Bucerotidae) in the forest fragments of eastern Assam. Indian BIRDS 15 (6): 174–177.
- Datta, A. 2009. Observations on Rufous-necked Aceros nipalensis and Austen’s Brown Anorrhinus austeni Hornbills in Arunachal Pradesh: natural history, conservation status, and threats. Indian BIRDS 5 (4): 108–117.
- Datta A., Naniwadekar R. (2015). Hope for Hornbills. In: Hegan A. (ed.). No more endlings: saving species one story at a time. Coalition Wild and The Wild Foundation.