19 Feb 2020

Hidden cameras have captured remarkable footage showing the hatching of two rare hornbill chicks.

The rarely seen film is at the heart of a new series of Channel 4’s The Secret Life of the Zoo. The rhinoceros hornbill chicks, two females, arrived to parents Manu and Liv after an incubation period of around 40 days and are the first to hatch at the zoo for more than 13 years. We’re the only zoo in the UK to ever successfully breed the species.

Conservation experts say the arrival of chicks is made even more special given the remarkable survival story of their parents who were rescued from a fire at the zoo in Dec 2018. The pair were safely led away from the fire by dedicated members of the zoo’s bird team and, within hours, they had been re-homed in another area of the 128 acre site.


It’s very rare to see the inside of a rhinoceros hornbill nest, as the incubation and rearing phase takes place inside a sealed cavity hidden high up in a tree. So to be able to watch chicks in the nest and follow their development, from hatching through to fledging, is incredibly special.

Andrew Owen, Curator of Birds

“The behaviours of the parents are also fascinating. Females seal themselves inside their nests as they raise their chicks, while the doting male remains outside, finding and delivering food for his partner and young. They rely on him completely until they have developed their flight feathers and are ready to leave the nest several months later.

The new chicks are ever so important, particularly given how threatened the rhinoceros hornbill is in the wild. These are the first of their kind to hatch at the zoo for 13 years and if the arrival of such rare chicks isn’t special enough, the backstory of their parents makes them even more remarkable. The adult pair were rescued from an awful blaze that broke out in our South East Asian Monsoon Forest habitat at the end of 2018. For the plucky pair to have gone on and have chicks so soon after is quite astonishing.

Given all of these circumstances, it’s wonderful to have been able to watch the chicks grow and take flight for the first time.”

The rhinoceros hornbill is vulnerable to extinction in its native range in South East Asia, its wild number having plummeted due to habitat loss and illegal hunting.

Mike Jordan, our Animal and Plant Collections Director, added:

“It’s fantastic that the bird team at the zoo has been successful in breeding these new chicks. The work that we do to breed and protect hornbills, however, goes way beyond the boundaries of the zoo. Our bird conservationists are out in Malaysia where, alongside our partners, we’re helping the species fight off the threat of extinction as their rainforest home is being cleared to make way for unsustainable palm oil plantations.

Part of this work involves the erection of artificial nest boxes which, in the absence of tall, cavernous trees that they would normally live in, provides the birds with suitable breeding conditions that they’re comfortable in.

We’ve already seen the birds in the wild using our boxes to rear their young, giving a vital boost to their wild numbers.”

The chicks at the zoo hatched in May last year but remained sealed in their nest for two and a half months until they were ready to fledge.

See the full story on this week’s episode of The Secret Life of The Zoo, which will be broadcast on Channel 4 on Thursday 20 February at 8pm. Join the conversation LIVE on Twitter using #TheZoo and by following @chesterzoo

Find out more about the work we’re doing with partners in the field to help protect the rhinoceros hornbill.


NOW is the time to ACT FOR WILDLIFE. Conservation is CRITICAL; species are under threat. TOGETHER we can make a BIG difference. Take action TODAY and join us in PREVENTING EXTINCTION.


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