Meet Malaysia's Hornbill Man: Making Dinner for Jungle Wildlife

Oriental Pied hornbills in Pangkor Island, Malaysia
Oriental Pied hornbills in Pangkor Island, Malaysia | © Sam Bedford
Sam Bedford

At 6:00pm on the dot, three hornbills perch themselves on electricity cables hanging above the sun-bleached island road. Ten minutes later, three more arrive. Soon, 30 wild hornbills are hungrily sitting in anticipation outside Sunset View Chalet in Teluk Nipah on Pangkor Island.

The hornbill man

Meet Anas Aidil: The man, who along with his father, feeds wild hornbills on Pulau Pangkor, a small island off the coast of Perak State. Hundreds of Oriental Pied hornbills, the smallest species in existence, live in Pangkor’s jungle. Every day, like clockwork, dozens hornbills fly to Anas’s guesthouse for a generous meal of white bananas. According to Anas, this is the only place in the world where wild hornbills come to a specific location and time of their own accord.
Despite the amazing regularity of this scenario, Anas refuses to take advantage of the birds. He forlornly explains: “Some people pull the tails to get their feathers.” For this reason, Anas doesn’t touch the hornbills – the birds come to him.

You can easily spot a wild hornbill in Pangkor Island
Hornbills would come to Aidil to be fed

How it all started

Anas’s father first started feeding the hornbills 15 years ago. By putting out different types of food, he soon discovered which they liked best – turns out they’re pretty fond of white bananas.
Anas carries on his father’s hobby to this day. Most of the time, he holds out a small slice of white banana, and patiently waits for the birds swoop down and eat it from his hand. Other times, he hurls it high into the air, causing 15 hornbills to scramble for a sweet treat before it touches the ground. On some occasions, birds will stand on the floor and beg like a puppy.

While this is enough to make anyone squeal with glee, what motivates Anas is the joy he sees on tourist’s faces as they feed the birds themselves.

The whole idea of feeding the hornbills started out as a hobby

Majestic birds

Hornbills (tropical birds known for their distinctive two-storied beaks) are majestic, friendly creatures. While watching them patiently await their dinner food, it becomes clear that these birds have a firm set of family values, often travelling in groups. Those lucky enough to watch often drop their jaws in amazement as the wild birds pass their slices of banana to one another. Amas explains that hornbills tend to share with their families, stating “if they’re full, they give it to the wife or husband!”
Male and female Oriental Pied hornbills have defining characteristics that set them apart. Males are slightly larger with a black line on their horns, while female horns are black at the front with a brown mouth. Males also bring food back to the nest when the female takes care of eggs, which tend to hatch around May.

The hornbills patiently waiting for feeding time
There are times where more than 20 hornbills would show up
More hornbills patiently waiting for their turn during feeding time

White bananas

Before anyone gets any ideas to go out and find a wild hornbill to pamper, it’s important to note that these birds only eat white bananas. They’re very choosy and can consume anywhere between three to six kilograms (6.6 to 13.3 pounds) a day.
Other types of food like bread (or anything containing yeast) damage the bird’s digestive system, causing sickness. The type of banana Anas and his father feed the birds with are not easy to find on Pangkor Island, and he regularly buys imported stock if necessary. And it all comes at their own expense.

It’s an amazing experience to feed wild hornbills
The choosy hornbills only feed on white bananas which are quite hard to find in Pangkor
The hornbill will come swooping the bananas from your fingers

Meeting the hornbill man

Amas and his father run a popular guesthouse in Teluk Nipah on the western coast of Pulau Pangkor. Every day at 6:30pm outside the Sunset View Chalet, Amas or his father comes out with a bowl of bananas.
After calling the birds with a long monotone whistle, they’ll start feeding the hornbills. Tourists then have the chance to try it for themselves. After feeding, the birds return to their nests, and the tourists head to the beach for an incredible sunset.

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