The great hornbill is the largest in the hornbill family of birds. These birds may grow to be between 2 and 3 feet tall (61 cm and 1 m) and can weigh as much as 7 pounds (3 kg). The most distinguishing feature of the great hornbill may be the yellow-colored casque that sits on the head, acting as a sound amplifier as well as a sign of sexual maturity. Great hornbills are normally black in color with a few white strips and a bright yellow curved beak. Females normally have white eye irises, while the males tend to have red irises.
In the wild, the great hornbill is usually found living in the rainforests of China, India, and parts of southeastern Asia. They prefer to live in the canopy of the trees, spending their days searching for food. These birds are omnivorous and eat fruit as well as small mammals, snakes, and lizards. Fruits tend to make up the largest part of a great hornbill's diet, and this is why these birds are believed to play an important part in the survival of the rainforest. After eating fruit, these birds disburse the uneaten seeds across the forest floor, which can result in new vegetative growth essential to the survival of the rainforest and the animals in it.
The great hornbill typically keeps one mate for life. During breeding season, males generally fight each other and perform flying tricks in the air to attract the attention of the female bird. Eggs are usually laid inside a hollowed out tree during the early part of each year, and both the male and female work to build an enclosure out of food and feces that helps block the nesting area from view of predators. Most females lay no more than two eggs, which remain inside the nesting area for about four months before they are ready to leave. The female great hornbill stays with her chicks until they leave the nest and allows the male to bring her food every day that is fed to her through a tiny opening in the nesting enclosure.
Most great hornbills are capable of living up to 35 years but do not typically survive for that long in the wild. The destruction of the rainforest may be taking a great toll on their numbers, and they are also frequently hunted and trapped for their feathers and for trading purposes. There are currently many programs in place to protect the species, including payment to local people in Thailand for helping to guard their nests from harm. Many zoos worldwide are also trying to increase the numbers of the species through captive breeding.