Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Hornbills in Miri

YOU might be surprised to learn that there are hornbills resident in Miri. I’m talking about the birds – yes, real live ones in the wild, not in a zoo or a cage.

While some people travel around the world to see such iconic animals, we are lucky to have them right on our doorstep – well, almost on our doorstep. In fact, to be precise, hornbills nest only 8.6km from Curtin Sarawak’s campus.

So what’s so special about that? For a start, hornbills occupy a very special place in Sarawakian culture. The rhinoceros hornbill, with its distinctive curved orange red bill or casque, is featured on the Sarawak state crest. The kenyalang feathers have cultural significance for the Ibans and other Dayak communities. Such feathers decorate some of their ceremonial dress, though today, they are wisely being replaced by more environmentally-friendly imitation feathers. Hornbill symbolism is also widely found in native art.

What’s more, we cannot help but marvel at the sight of these magnificent birds with their enormous and seemingly heavy bills. In the case of the helmeted hornbill, the bill is actually solid and was traditionally used for carving items such as earrings.

Other species have less dense, but no less impressive, bills. The species that lives near the Curtin Sarawak campus is the oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris).

The words anthraco and ceros come from the Greek words for coal and horn and refer to the black markings on the bill of this species. Albi is from Latin and means to be or go white; rostrum is a Latin word for a platform or beak. So, from the name itself, you can picture a hornbill that is essentially black and white – hence the common name pied, which means to have two different colours.

Of the 10 hornbill species found in Malaysia, the oriental pied hornbill is one of the smaller ones of those more commonly found in coastal areas. However, only four individuals, all members of a single family, are currently known to inhabit the Piasau peninsula in Miri. These birds are so special that you can even follow them on Twitter (Piasau Yelping @PiasauYelp) – but watch out as these birds don’t tweet but yelp! You can also find and like them on the Facebook group Save Piasau Oriental Hornbill.

By now you must be wondering what the fuss is all about and what this has got to do with Curtin Sarawak.

In 2012, a Casuarina tree on Piasau Camp was found to be home to an adult female hornbill and her two chicks. Hornbills are unlike other birds in that the female lays her eggs and incubates them in a hole in a tree. The entrance to the hole was sealed with clay by the adult male bird, leaving just a narrow open slit. It is through this slit that the father provided all the food needed by the mother and their growing chicks.

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