One for the conscience

2005 July 5
by David J. Ringer

UKARUMPA, PNG — On the way out of the house this morning, I heard a strange, grunting sort of call. Shortly after arriving in Ukarumpa, I’d heard people talk about seeing a giant “toucan” just up the road. I’d gone to look for it then but hadn’t found it.

But upon hearing the call, I started scanning the trees. As I passed underneath one that grows right beside the road, I saw it — a huge black Blyth’s Hornbill. I hurried back to the house for my binocs and camera and spent the next few minutes observing the bird.


The bird didn’t move much, but what a fascinating study it was: shaggy crest, enormous bill, and long white tail.

When I finally made it to the office, I showed a picture of the bird to June, who seems to be interested in my love of wild things. She told me about a time when a hornbill followed her along a path to a village. “It was kind of a pet to the villagers,” she said.

Her story put words to a concern that had already been knocking around in the back of my head.

Can I list the hornbill?

Looking at my field guide did not assuage my fears. A bird of the forest, the hornbill is “often extirpated from areas near human habitation,” it said. Ukarumpa is located in a grassy, hilly valley. I haven’t seen forest anywhere around; at best there are stands of trees over coffee plantations. Worse, the book says the birds live from sea level to 500 meters in elevation, and rarely up to 1800 meters. We’re at almost a mile in elevation here, pushing 1600 meters.

I think the bird might be a pet.


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