Tuesday, June 18

NC Zoo | Desert Dome Welcomes Pair of Rare African Birds

[Scott Pelkey | North State Journal]

ASHEBORO N.C. – The Desert Dome at the North Carolina Zoo recently became the new home to a pair of rare African birds.

Several months ago, two Von der Decken’s Hornbills arrived at the North Carolina Zoo. Jake, the male, who came from the Los Angeles Zoo, and Zuri, the female, who came from the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in New York.

After spending around a month in quarantine, a standard precaution, the pair were introduced to each other and now reside together in the Desert Dome.

Von der Decken’s Hornbills (Tockus deckeni) are a distinctive species of birds found in the arid regions of East Africa, particularly in Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania.

The birds distinguishing feature, is its large bill, also called a horn.  “For them it’s a tool” said Eric Mahan, a Keeper at the Desert Dome. “Most birds use their beaks as tools, but for hornbills, their beak is like a Swiss Army Knife of a tool because they’ll use it to catch food, but they’ll also use it to smooth out and carve out the tree cavity if they need to. Kind of fix it up as they’re getting ready to nest.

The species are cavity nesters who use tree hollows to create their nesting sites. “The females and the males will try and find a tree cavity that she can fit in” said Mahan, “they will completely seal her in when she’s ready with a little bit of clay, only leaving just enough of a gap that the male can feed her through it.”

For two month the female will stay sealed in the hollowed-out tree while she lays eggs, lets them hatch, and takes care of the baby.

Jake, the male (left) identified by his brightly colored beak, and Zuri the female (right) identified by her black horn.
[Scott Pelkey | North State Journal]

However, it’s that unique nesting habit that helped land the bird on the endangered species list. In Africa, fallen and hollowed out trees are often gathered for firewood which is used for sanitizing water and cooking. In an interesting effort to help preserve the natural habitat of the birds, conservationists, on top of planting trees have developed a special charcoal made from poop. 💩

“They’ve been able to develop this charcoal that is made from the droppings of, well, both humans and the cattle that are over there, and then they’re able to create this thing that actually burns longer and sometimes burns even a little hotter than wood itself.,” said Mahan, who assures the final product does not smell like burning poop.

The pair of Von der Decken’s Hornbills are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Program. Mahan says the hope is that the pair produce offspring. “Our hope is that they breed and we’re going to have some babies, but only time can tell.”

Karl Klaus von der Decken (1833-1865) – Source: Magazin: Allgemeine Familien-Zeitung 1874 Nr. 3 drawing by C.Kolb / Public Domain)

Von der Decken’s Hornbills get their name from Baron Carl Claus von der Decken, a German explorer who explored East Africa during the mid-19th century. He was the first European to attempt to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania but failed on two separate attempts.

His exploration of nearby Mount Meru, some forty miles away, during an 1862 expedition is believed to be where he first documented the unique bird which would later be named after him, the Von der Decken’s Hornbill.

Three years later, during an 1865 expedition to Somalia, von der Decken and three companions met a grim fate when they were murdered by local Somalis.

If you think the bird looks familiar, you’re onto something. Von der Decken’s Hornbills are perhaps best known for their similarity to the character of Zazu, who is the majordomo and royal advisor to Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King.

In the 1994 animated feature film, Zazu is believed to be based on the red-billed hornbill. In the 2019 live action remake Zazu more closely resembles Von der Decken’s Hornbills, but we could not find any official source to confirm that.

See these rare birds on your next trip to the zoo and let us know what you think. The Von der Decken’s Hornbills are located inside the Desert Dome in the first exhibit on the left after entering.

UPDATE 2/3/24 – When we were writing this article, we reached out to Disney’s Public Relations department who confirmed with Walt Disney Animation Studios that Zazu is a yellow-billed hornbill.