Helmeted Hornbill in Malaysia

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Malaysia Helmeted HornbillUndoubtedly, one of my fondest memories of birdwatching was an encounter with the Helmeted Hornbill in Malaysia some time ago. This most magnificent hornbill is a rare bird, and seeing one from a distance is already quite exciting. A point-blank encounter with two is beyond enthralling and something to cherish forever.

Helmeted Hornbill in Malaysia 

The Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) is possibly the most distinctive of the hornbills in Malaysia. A combination of enormous size, very long tail, blunt-ended casque (the ‘horn’ on top of the bill), and brick-red face make this species unmistakable.

The males have a red skin area around the neck, whilst the females have a turquoise one. This bird is a rare resident in Malaysia and inhabits primary lowland rainforests, its preferred habitat.

A bird more often heard than seen, the song of the helmeted hornbill is distinctive in itself. Once heard, never forgotten! Based on my experience, I can best describe it as such: It starts with a loud, widely spaced, resonating ‘pook‘. This slowly accelerates in frequency, then suddenly changes to a ‘te-pook‘. This also accelerates, then eventually ends in maniacal-sounding laughter.

The song has been likened to someone laughing after hacking down his in-laws’ house – earning this species’ Malay name: Enggang Tebang Mertua. The song can be heard from some distance away and is often the first indication of the bird’s presence. The eBird page has a good recording of its song. 

The IUCN hornbills page has some very interesting details about the species. More information can also be found in its Wikipedia article.

My Encounter with the Helmeted Hornbill in Malaysia 

This memorable meeting happened some time ago while I was exploring a forested area. The day was overcast with drizzling rain, and combined with slippery trails, it wasn’t easy birding. Just after climbing a steep hillock, I heard the rough, whooshing sound that hornbills make when they flap their wings.

Looking around expecting a wreathed or rhino hornbill, I was flabbergasted to see two helmeted hornbills perched right in front of me, slightly above eye level, barely a few metres away. Still out of breath after the steep climb, I observed them through my binoculars, looking at every detail as they foraged among the tree for fruits.

Helmeted Hornbill male
This male bird was perched so close above me that I had to zoom out to ensure it was in frame!

Belatedly remembering the camera slung by my side, I moved slowly to get into a better position. As I struggled with my camera settings, the birds shifted slightly higher up, and strong backlighting made them more challenging to photograph.

The birds never showed any signs of distress or alarm and continued feeding amongst the leaves. This whole encounter lasted over 5 minutes before they eventually flew off, leaving me completely mesmerised by the experience.

Helmeted Hornbill female
The light turquoise throat skin indicates this is the female bird. Note the large fruits nearby.

I have hitherto only once seen the Helmeted Hornbill in Malaysia, albeit from a great distance but have heard its song a few times. Never have I imagined being able to get up close and personal with this bird! This remains my closest encounter with any large hornbill in Malaysia.

Conservation Status

It would be remiss of me to end this article without highlighting the plight of the Helmeted Hornbill in Malaysia. Sadly, this iconic species is critically endangered. This bird has long been illegally hunted for its highly prized ‘ivory’ (the bill/casque), and coupled with extensive deforestation around the region, numbers are decreasing.

From 2004-2012, it was listed as Near Threatened but was uplisted to Critically Endangered in 2015. This situation is unlikely to improve as hunting will only increase due to the value of the ‘ivory’. Head over to the IUCN redlist page for more detail.

Due to its rarity, sightings of this bird are sporadic and highly sought after by birdwatchers and photographers alike. However, it is imperative that details of any sightings must be kept confidential to protect the species.

Think twice before sharing your sightings/photos on social media – wait a few weeks or months before posting and never disclose the location. Avoid disturbing nesting birds, and refrain from using call playback.

Conclusion

My encounter with the Helmeted Hornbill in Malaysia is certainly a cherished memory. Hopefully, this species will continue to survive into the future, giving others opportunities to see this majestic monarch of the forests in the wild here in Malaysia.


References:

Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Davison, G.W.H., Phillipps, K., Kamis, A. (1989).  Pengenalan Burung-Burung Malaysia. World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

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