14 September 2012

Photo quiz

It's the colourful casque of a hornbill (this thing above the beak – also called a "bill" – and head).

Hornbills are found in Africa and Asia (I took the photo below in Singapore) and show considerable variation in size. They are the only birds in which the first two neck vertebrae are fused together, supporting the large beak (in case you want to impress your date with that fact), which by the way interferes with their vision but allows them to more precisely pick at things.

And of course, the most visible feature is this casque ("helmet") on top of the head and beak, usually hollow, which again varies significantly in size depending on the hornbill species, and doesn't appear to serve any specific function apart from allowing to resonate calls when the casque is large enough.

The funny thing about hornbills is that, like toucans, they cannot swallow food caught at the tip of the beak as their tongues are too short to manipulate it, so they toss it back to the throat with a jerk of the head. Talk about taking choking risks!

Toucan at the Singapore zoo