Bird O'clock

Birding 101: The Fascinating World of Black Dwarf Hornbills

There are nearly 62 species of hornbills in the world, and one of the smallest among them is the Black Dwarf Hornbill. This tiny bird is found exclusively in the African rainforest, and despite its compact size, it shares many characteristics with its larger relatives.

In this article, we will explore the identification, plumage, and molts of the Black Dwarf Hornbill.


The Black Dwarf Hornbill is a unique bird species with several distinct identifying features. Firstly, it is small, measuring only six inches in length.

Secondly, its plumage is predominantly black, with white feathers on its tail and wingtips. Thirdly, it has a noticeably large, curved beak which is ivory in colour, and is a striking contrast to its black feathers.



The Black Dwarf Hornbill can easily be identified in its natural habitat by its black plumage and white wingtips and tail feathers. It is one of the smallest species of hornbills, so its petite size can also be used to distinguish it from other birds.

Its bill is also a distinctive feature, with a noticeable curve and a height and breadth that appear disproportionate to its overall size.

Similar Species

The Black Dwarf Hornbill can often be mistaken for the African Grey and Black-Casqued Hornbills due to their similar colouring and overall physical features. However, the former lacks the distinctive beak shape of the Black Dwarf Hornbill while the latter have white markings on their eyes and bill which are absent in the Black Dwarf.


The Black Dwarf Hornbill undergoes several plumage changes throughout its life, which are important in identifying its age and sex. Juvenile Plumage: Newly hatched Black Dwarf Hornbills are covered in white down feathers.

As they grow, their feathers turn greyish-black, and their beaks have a less curved shape. Adult Plumage: As the Black Dwarf Hornbill matures, it develops a black plumage with white patches on its wingtips and tail.

Their beaks also become more prominent and curved.


Just like all other bird species, the Black Dwarf Hornbill undergoes moults during the year. It has two distinct molting periods – breeding and non-breeding.

Breeding Molt: During the breeding season, Black Dwarf Hornbills will lose their flight feathers, replacing them with new ones. This process ensures that they can fly more efficiently and take better care of their young.

The breeding molting period starts in October and lasts until February. Non-

Breeding Molt: During the non-breeding season, Black Dwarf Hornbills will shed their body feathers and replace them with new ones.

This process allows them to maintain a healthy and streamlined plumage throughout the year. The non-breeding molting period starts in June and lasts until September.


The Black Dwarf Hornbill is a fascinating bird species that despite its small size, has many unique features that are distinct from other hornbill species. From its black plumage and striking white wingtips to its unusual egg-shaped body and disproportionately large beak, this tiny bird packs a lot of personality and charm in a small package.

Understanding its identification, plumage and molting cycles can help us appreciate and protect this fantastic bird species.

Systematics History

The Black Dwarf Hornbill, formally known as Horizocerus hartlaubi, is a bird species that belongs to the Bucerotidae family. This family consists of 62 species, and the Black Dwarf Hornbill is one of the smallest bird species in the family.

The Black Dwarf Hornbill was first described in 1850 by the German naturalist, Gustav Hartlaub, who named the bird after himself. The bird was originally assigned to the Buceros genus, but it was later classified into the Tockus genus.

However, recent studies have confirmed that the Black Dwarf Hornbill is not closely related to the Tockus genus and should, therefore, be placed in its own genus, Horizocerus.

Geographic Variation

The Black Dwarf Hornbill is found exclusively in the African rainforest. It is distributed across West and Central Africa; countries such as Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast in the west, and Cameroon, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville in the east.


The Black Dwarf Hornbill has two subspecies; the Eastern and Western Black Dwarf Hornbills. The Western Black Dwarf Hornbill is commonly found in the Congo Basin while the Eastern Black Dwarf Hornbill is found in the eastern parts of the African rainforest.

The two subspecies are differentiated by their different body sizes and bill lengths. The Eastern Black Dwarf Hornbill has a longer bill compared to the Western Black Dwarf Hornbill, which accounts for the difference in body size.

However, the differentiation between subspecies has been a subject of debate among ornithologists because the differences are not always clear-cut. Some suggest that the two subspecies are better viewed as a single species with slight variation in bill length and body size.

Related Species

The Black Dwarf Hornbill is so named because it is the smallest species of Hornbill. It is closely related to the African Grey and Black Casqued Hornbills, which are also found in the African rainforest.

The African Grey Hornbill has a grey head, white belly and black wings. Its beak is less curved than the Black Dwarf Hornbills beak and is ivory in colour.

The Black Casqued Hornbill has a black head and a large, cream-coloured casque on its upper bill.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The historic distribution of the Black Dwarf Hornbill has been affected by various factors over time, including habitat destruction and hunting. The Black Dwarf Hornbill primarily inhabits the African rainforest, which is under significant threat from deforestation caused by human activity.

This deforestation has resulted in the loss of natural habitats for the bird, as well as fragmentation of the forest, which has affected the population density of the Black Dwarf Hornbill. Hunting for food and the illegal pet trade has also caused a decline in the population of the Black Dwarf Hornbill, with the bird being killed for its meat and feathers.

Additionally, its small size makes it an easy target for predators, such as snakes and other birds of prey. Conservation efforts have been put in place to address these challenges, including the creation of protected areas and national parks.

These efforts have seen the population of the Black Dwarf Hornbill rise, and currently, there is no evidence of the bird being under threat of extinction.


The Black Dwarf Hornbill is a bird species that has held a place of fascination for ornithologists for many years. Its unique body shape, combined with its striking black plumage, white wingtips and disproportionately large, curved beak, makes it a species that is easy to identify.

While its distribution has historically been affected by habitat destruction and hunting, recent conservation efforts have seen its populations rise. Ornitologists continue to study this fascinating species with the hope of learning more about its behaviour and biology in the future.


The Black Dwarf Hornbill is a bird species that is uniquely adapted to a habitat of African rainforest. They are typically found in the tall thick forests with dense canopies that allow little light to penetrate.

Black Dwarf Hornbills are arboreal birds, meaning they spend a significant amount of their time up in the trees. They prefer to roost and nest in the hollows and cavities found in large trees, which offer them safe and secure living spaces.

Movements and Migration

One of the most notable features of the Black Dwarf Hornbill is their limited range of movement. They tend to remain within a small range throughout their lifespan and are non-migratory birds.

Because of their small size, they have a limited flight range and mostly move through short glides. Thus, they rarely go outside their preferred habitat range, unless there is an urgent need for a change in location.

During the wet season, which is characterized by heavy downpours and low temperatures, the Black Dwarf Hornbill may move into lower-altitude areas in search of food. After the end of the wet season and the onset of the dry season, they often return to their preferred habitat range when the weather becomes more favourable.

Social Structure and Behaviour

Black Dwarf Hornbills are socially monogamous, meaning they may mate with only one partner throughout their lifespan. Once they form a bond with a partner, they are very loyal, and pairs may spend their entire lives together.

They communicate with one another through a series of calls, including long-distance calls that allow them to signal their location to distant members of their species. A notable feature of Black Dwarf Hornbills is their unusual breeding habits.

The females lay their eggs in tree hollows, and then they seal themselves inside the hollow with mud, to protect themselves and their offspring from predators. The male is responsible for securing food and nourishing the mother and young chicks during the incubation period.

Feeding Habits

Black Dwarf Hornbills are primarily frugivorous, meaning they feed on fruits. They also consume small insects such as ants and beetles and will occasionally forage for small animals like lizards and snakes.

They use their large, curved bills to crack open the hard exteriors of fruits and nuts, which enables them to access the pulpy interior. Their beaks are also used to catch insects and small animals for a secondary food source.

Conservation Efforts

As mentioned earlier, the habitat destruction caused by human activities, such as logging and mining, poses a significant threat to the Black Dwarf Hornbill. As a result, the bird has been placed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species,as Near Threatened in 2021.

Several conservation measures have been put in place to help protect the Black Dwarf Hornbill, including creating protected areas, conducting research on the birds ecology and behaviour, and raising public awareness about the need for conservation. The creation of these protected areas has helped to curb the effects of habitat destruction, and ongoing research has helped to improve knowledge of the species biology and behaviour, which has aided planners in implementing sustainable development strategies.


The Black Dwarf Hornbill is a unique bird species that is largely restricted to the African rainforest habitat. Despite the challenges associated with habitat destruction and hunting, efforts are being made to protect this species.

Increased public awareness of the importance of conservation efforts, the creation of protected areas, and ongoing research will be essential in the years ahead, helping to ensure the survival of this fascinating species.

Diet and Foraging


Black Dwarf Hornbills are primarily frugivorous and feed mainly on fruits. They are known to share feeding territories with other frugivorous birds such as barbets, bulbuls, and turacos and may occasionally compete for food.

They have also been observed to forage for small insects such as ants and beetles and will occasionally feed on small animals like lizards and snakes. Black Dwarf Hornbills are known for having a unique foraging strategy, where they often follow groups of large mammals such as gorillas and chimpanzees while they forage in the forest.

The hornbills wait until the mammals disturb fruits and they then swoop down to collect any fallen fruit for themselves.


Black Dwarf Hornbills consume a wide variety of fruit species but they have a preference for the fruits of the fig tree. Figs make up a significant portion of their diet, and they have been observed to travel long distances to find fruiting fig trees.

This preference for figs is believed to be due to their high nutritional value and availability throughout the year.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Black Dwarf Hornbills are endothermic birds, which means they rely on internal metabolic heat to regulate their body temperature. Unlike mammals that use fur to insulate their bodies, birds have feather adaptations to trap heat and regulate temperature.

Black Dwarf Hornbills have a unique metabolic adaptation that allows them to maintain a constant body temperature despite varying external temperatures. Black Dwarf Hornbills are also known to have a lower metabolic rate while sleeping, allowing them to conserve energy during the night.

This may be due to their unique nesting behavior, which involves sealing themselves inside tree hollows during the night.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


Black Dwarf Hornbills communicate with each other through a range of vocalizations. Unlike most bird species, they have a unique call that is used to initiate contact with other members of their species.

This call is heard as a series of deep, resonant duets that are repeated in intervals. The duets are usually sung by the male and female of a mating pair, and they act as a form of territorial advertisement.

The call is often repeated every few minutes and can be heard for up to a few hundred metres away. Aside from their duets, Black Dwarf Hornbills also make a range of other calls.

For example, the males make a low rumbling sound while displaying, attracting the attention of a female. The females also make soft grunts when incubating eggs, which may serve to reassure the male that all is well in the nest.


The Black Dwarf Hornbill is a fascinating bird species that plays an important role in the ecological balance of the African rainforest. Their diet and foraging strategy have allowed them to thrive in the dense, closed-canopy forests where they reside, while their unique vocalizations showcase their remarkable social behavior and adaptations to their environment.

As they face increased threats from habitat destruction and hunting, it is crucial that conservation efforts continue to ensure the survival of this intriguing species.



Black Dwarf Hornbills are not known for their flying capabilities compared to other birds. They have relatively short and rounded wings that limit their ability to fly for long distances, so they mainly rely on short glides to move through the forest.

They use their wings to help them navigate through the densely packed trees in the rainforest. Black Dwarf Hornbills are also known for their strong legs and feet, which they use to perch on branches, climb trees, and maintain their balance.

Self Maintenance

Black Dwarf Hornbills are meticulous about their appearance, and they often spend long periods preening their feathers. Preening is the process by which birds maintain the condition of their feathers.

The birds use their beaks to spread natural oils produced from their preen gland located at the base of their tail, which they apply to the feathers and keep them in tip-top shape.

Agonictic Behavior

Agonistic behaviors are any social behaviors related to competition over resources or territories. Black Dwarf Hornbills are known to engage in some agonistic behaviors when challenged by other birds.

Male Black Dwarf Hornbills may engage in territorial displays to signal that the area is already occupied by them.

Sexual Behavior

Black Dwarf Hornbills are socially monogamous and breed between April and May, at the beginning of the rainy season. During the breeding season, males will display their plumage and vocalization in an attempt to attract a partner.

Female Black Dwarf Hornbills typically choose males based on the quality of their calls and displays, with stronger males being preferred.


Black Dwarf Hornbills are unique among bird species because of their nesting behavior. Unlike other bird species that build nests in trees or on the ground, Black Dwarf Hornbills seal themselves and their mate into a chamber inside a hollow tree for nesting.

The female seals herself and the eggs into the chamber using her own excrement, to protect herself and the eggs from predators and bad weather. The male brings her food and defends the nest from predators while she incubates the eggs.

Demography and Populations

Black Dwarf Hornbills have small populations that are concentrated within limited areas in the African rainforest. As such, they may be more vulnerable to extinction than other bird species.

Habitat destruction caused by deforestation and human encroachment remains the biggest threat to their survival, as it limits their breeding and foraging habitat and can alter species composition, and overall diversity within the forests. Conservation efforts are underway to preserve this unique bird species.

Increasing public awareness of the importance of conservation, creating protected areas for nesting and feeding, and supporting scientific research are essential steps in conserving this bird species. By supporting conservation efforts, individuals can help ensure that the beauty and rarity of Black Dwarf Hornbills continue to thrive and remain an essential component of the African rainforest ecosystem.


Black Dwarf Hornbills are fascinating birds that offer unique insight into bird behavior. Their monogamous social structure, unusual breeding habits and foraging strategies, and vocalizations make them an intriguing species to study.

Despite conservation efforts, habitat destruction and human encroachment remain a significant threat to their survival. By working together to protect the African rainforest and through public awareness campaigns, individuals can help ensure that the Black Dwarf Hornbill continues to thrive and remains a source of fascination and inspiration for future generations.

In conclusion, the Black Dwarf Hornbill is a bird species that has captivated the attention of ornithologists for many years. From their unique foraging strategy and preference for figs to their unusual breeding habits and vocalizations, these birds have provided valuable insight into the biology and behavior of birds.

It is crucial that conservation efforts continue to support the survival of this species amidst the threats of habitat destruction and hunting. By protecting their habitat and maintaining a commitment to public awareness and conservation efforts, we can ensure

Popular Posts