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Pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills Escape Zoo : Rare Birds Make Themselves Scarce

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Times Staff Writer

A pair of rare birds have flown the coop, Los Angeles Zoo officials reported Monday.

The male-female twosome are Asian rhinoceros hornbills, and they were last seen at about 8:30 a.m. Monday, when keepers arriving for work spotted the nameless birds flying over their Griffith Park roundhouse cage.

They had escaped through a hole in the cage’s chain-link fence that was torn by a falling eucalyptus tree, said zoo spokeswoman Lora La Marca. She said the tree, which grows up from the middle of the cage, apparently had been weakened by recent high winds and fell sometime during the night, ripping the fence.

Valued at about $15,000 a pair, the hornbills were described as measuring 3 feet from their beaks to the tips of their tails, being black with white trimmings and having large orange bills. There is a large orange casque, or horn-like growth, on top of their beaks, giving them a vaguely rhino-like appearance.

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The two hung about the zoo for a bit after escaping because they are “somewhat territorial,” but they then “flew around the elephants” and took off for parts unknown, La Marca said.

Hornbills are strong fliers, so “they could be in Santa Monica by now if they wanted to be,” she said Monday afternoon.

But more likely the rain has slowed them down and they are sheltering in a tree nearby, she said. Just in case, zoo keepers have placed a bowl of fruit inside a trap atop the cage. “If they’re close by, they might come down when they are hungry,” La Marca said.

If they don’t come home, there is a good chance that someone will spot them because “they’re such distinctive-looking birds,” she said. In that case, bird watchers should call Michael Cunningham, the zoo’s bird curator, at 213-666-4650.

The birds are natives of the Malaysia area and have lived at the zoo for 10 years. Hornbills have a 30-year life span and don’t reproduce well in captivity.

It seems, La Marca explained, that hornbills are rather sensitive creatures. To lay her eggs, the female needs a partially hollowed-out tree (hence the presence of the eucalyptus inside the cage). She goes inside, and with a mix of droppings and saliva, builds a little door over the hole.

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The male collects food and brings it to the female while she hatches the eggs and feeds the young. This delicate process never happened at the zoo for the missing twosome.

So if the two don’t return, zoo officials will have to borrow a pair, with the hope that they will leave some offspring behind when they are returned.

The operative word is borrow, not buy, because the hornbill is so scarce. Said La Marca, “If you (a zoo curator) have hornbills, I don’t think you want to sell them.”

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