“This Punchinello figure–such a nose! My lords, there is no such nose as that nose. You cannot look upon it without crying: ‘Oh no, Impossible! Exaggerated!’ Then you smile and say: ‘of course–I might have known; presently he will take it off.’ But Monsieur de Bergerac will never do.”
–Ragueneau, “Cyrano de Bergerac”
Riotous in color and behavior, the great hornbill is a great spectacle. Nearly every characteristic, from feeding and breeding to sound and appearance, demands attention.
Much like in the jungle, on the Wall of Birds—a 70′ x 40′ mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology depicting the 375-million-year evolution of birds—the great hornbill dominates its home range of southeast Asia, its banded tail hanging off the continent like a feathery peninsula.
More than three feet long with a five-foot wingspan, it is the biggest of all hornbills. Easy to hear and difficult to turn away from, it calls with a raucous growl and in-flight the hornbill has more in common with a jet engine than a stealthy owl. Lacking sound-damping under-wing covert feathers, flying hornbills have been compared to everything from woodwind orchestras to locomotives. In southern India a local name for the bird translates to ‘mountain shaking.’
Monogamous breeders, they practice a unique form of solitary confinement. The female is sealed into the hole of a tree and spends up to four months ordering delivery from her mate while she lays her eggs, molts, and rears the chicks. Their nesting habits are of such curiosity that one group of scientists felt compelled to spend 183 hours studying the behavior as explained in a paper titled, “Wild Great Hornbills Do Not Use Mud to Seal Nest Cavities.” Conclusion: they use their own shit.
A hornbill dinner isn’t so much a meal as an exhibition. It plays with its food, hopping between branches to pluck tiny berries then tossing them into the air and catching them with a snap, rolling the fruit down its throat.
The bird’s eponymous bill is responsible for its celebrity. An important symbol to myriad Asian tribes and cultures, male hornbills have been observed using its headgear, the color of tequila sunrise, as a battering ram to fight off rivals. The partially hollow casques may amplify the territorial bird’s noisy calls. They certainly offer a clear measure of virility.
This facial phallus offended colonial sensibilities. Eighteenth century French naturalist Comte de Buffon, notes Birds and People, considered it “a cruel injustice.” The British cleric Bishop Stanley referred to them as “seemingly deformed and monstrous bills,” while John Ray, described it as having a “foul look.”
If it could, the hornbill would surely protest such narrow-minded aestheticism. Instead, we turn to another big-beaked character, Cyrano de Bergerac, for a suitable rebuttal: “Know that I glory in this nose of mine, for a great nose indicates a great man: genial, courteous, intellectual, virile, courageous – as I am – and such as you – poor wretch – will never dare to be even in imagination.”
“This was a really, really fun bird to paint,” says artist and Ink Dwell founder Jane Kim. “He’s regal. He knows he’s spectacular and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.”
When completed, the mural titled “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Evolution and Diversity of Birds,” will be the only one to showcase all 243 modern families of birds in one place. For Kim, the goal is always to capture the subject in as few brush strokes as possible. “That can be a struggle, but the hornbill was an exercise in minimalism. Because he’s so bold, he needed to be painted simply.
“There are so many things I love about this bird. His beak reminds me of a giant piece of candy corn. I wanted to paint a male so that I could give him a red eye.” Texture played as important a role as color. “The beak has a smooth, plastic quality but its underside has a powdery matte finish. His yellow neck feathers are fluffy.”
The most enjoyable part to paint was the black wing feathers. “With an area like that there are no colors or bizarre shapes that serve as props or distractions. It’s a matter of creating depth and texture with very dark colors. I wanted the wing to be able to stand alone as a piece of art but also complement the entire bird.
“Sometimes,” says Kim “it all just comes together.”