My first encounter with a southern yellow-billed hornbill was a pleasant one. The bird was pointed out to me on my second day at Djuma. Jared, one of the tech team, drew my attention to one seated upon a tree. He said it would soon do a little dance and after a few moments of anticipation, the bird indeed broke into a dance. Bobbing itself up and down, it jerked to and fro across the branch. The ‘dance’ looked more like an aggressive series of squat exercises and combined with the bird’s funny looks (in particular its comically bug-eyed eyes and bright bill) made the creature look like a clown. I laughed and then turned away after it finished, having quite enjoyed the bird’s silly display.
The next encounter was not so pleasant. At approximately five in the morning, I was awoken by a hideous crash, which ripped me from my pleasant sleep. I looked around, the world slowly coming into focus. And what should I find? A hornbill, perched on the windowsill outside my room. It seemed the bird had slammed itself into the window with full force. It was unhurt, but when it noticed me it seemed to taunt me by pecking at the window. I shooed it and it flew away beneath the early morning sunlight.
This was an encounter that has repeated itself time and again since my arrival at Djuma camp. I’ll be sleeping or working in my room, when suddenly: WHACK! A hornbill slams itself into the window, peers at me for several moments, before flying off on its own accord or being shooed away. I confess I have a heightened sense of anxiety because of this during the day. It’s almost like the building anticipation for a horror movie. When will the shock come? Will it even come? Sometimes it does, sometime it doesn’t. But very often, I’m still awakened quite early in the morning to what sounds like a resounding, ear-splitting crash that turns out to be an angry hornbill determined to attack an intruder that is in fact its own reflection.
Due to this, the birds annoy me greatly but still, I can’t truly hate them. They’re living creatures and weren’t designed with the sole purpose of “smash into Jake’s window.” In addition this, repeated encounters with the hornbills also prompted me to research them, as I grew more curious of their behavior and lifestyle after being forced to take notice of them. I learned they are primarily foragers, feeding on spiders, insects, and small rodents. Their comically large beaks are actually a great way to differentiate between the sexes of the birds, with male hornbills being larger, on average, than the females. Their environments are semi-arid, with savannas and woodlands being their favored homes. I learned they are one of the most common birds in Africa, a frequent sight near urban areas. Despite their simplistic appearance, they are quite complex and prove essential to their native regions.
I now regard these birds as more than an annoyance. They are living creatures, with just as much of a role to play as the lion, the elephant, and the wildebeest. They may be comical and irritating but they deserve respect too, not just contempt for acting on instincts beyond their control.
I don’t hate these birds. Now I even look forward to their presence. And this morning, when one banged against my window, I didn’t shoo it away. Rather, I let it sit on the windowsill as long as it wanted and I confess, I rather enjoyed its company.
-Written by Jake McDaniel