FAST BACKWARD: The hornbills of Davao

Fast Backward by Antonio V. Figueroa

The tribes in many parts of the archipelago call it kalaw and it has earned the sobriquet as the ‘clock of the forest’ given the regular calls they make at precisely the same time. In short, the hornbill, no matter its class, is nature’s recognized timekeeper.

Worldwide, there are fifty-seven species, ten of these are endemic to the country. Whether in real life or in legend, the bird, which is distinct for its brightly colored bill, is one of the largest fowls that can be found in forests throughout the country. The smaller variety is known is many places as the tarictic or taliktik.

The hornbill species found in the islands are the Palawan hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei), Sulu hornbill (Anthracoceros montani), Rufous hornbill (Buceros hydrocorax), Luzon hornbill (Penelopides manillae), Mindoro hornbill (Penelopides mindorensis), Visayan hornbill (Penelopides panini), Samar hornbill (Penelopides samarensis), Mindanao hornbill (Penelopides affinis), Walden’s hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus waldeni), and writhed hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus leucocephalus).

English anthropologist Arnold Henry Savage Landor, who visited Davao in 1902, observed the presence of birds while negotiating Hijo River on his way to Mawab, Compostela Valley Province and the Lower Agusan basin. In his book, The Gems of the East (1904), he wrote:

“From some cliffs of volcanic formation descended a pretty waterfall which formed an immense umbrella of stalactites. Huge hornbills with gigantic red beaks could be seen flying over our heads, and their peculiar shriek could be constantly heard all round.”

A similar impression was recorded by Dean Conant Worcester, who, as secretary of the interior of the Philippine Islands, made countryside visits in Davao to get a first-hand observation of the regions under his jurisdiction. In his book The Philippine Past and Present (1914), he wrote:

“The trip up the Agusan River is a most wonderful one… Great fruit pigeons and huge hornbills frequently fly over one’s boat, or perch in trees where they can be shot from the river. Monkeys abound. Huge crocodiles may occasionally be observed sleeping on, the banks. Wild hogs are plentiful, but usually keep out of sight.”

In Bagobos legends, described in the Journal of American Folk-lore (1913), it is popularly believed that the hornbill on a tree was used to be man “and the proof is, that if you look at the body of a hornbill, under the feathers, at some point between the neck and the wing, you will see that its skin is like the skin of man.”

Among Muslims, the tree-hornbill legend is linked to the biblical flood. American writer Charles Montgomery Skinner (1852-1907), in his ‘Myths & Legends of Our New Possessions & Protectorate,’ published in 1900, wrote about this amusing narrative:

“In the Moro tradition… Noah and his family got into a box when the forty days of rain began, and one pair of each kind of bird and beast followed them. All of the human race except Noah, his wife and children, were either drowned or changed. Those men who ran to the mountains when they saw the flood rising became monkeys; those who flung themselves into the sea became fish; the Chinese turned into hornbills; a woman who was eating seaweed and kept on eating after the waves broke over her became a dugong.”

To take down a perched hornbill, the Manobos, instead of employing ordinary arrow, use sharp spikes from the anahaw (Saribus rotundifolius) to puncture its tough hide. To them the hornbill’s cry is a portent of evil sign. John M. Garvan, in The Manobos of Mindanao, noted:

“There are, however, several [birds] that by their cry, forebode evil. Thus, the cry of all birds that ordinarily do not cry by night is of evil omen. The various species of hornbills, crows, and chickens are examples. The cawing of crows and the shrieking of owls in the night have a particularly evil significance, for these birds are then considered to be the embodiment of demons that hover around with evil intent.”

The presence of hornbills in the region, chiefly the Mindanao hornbill (Penelopides affinis Tweedale (1877), has even inspired the American occupiers to name its military encampment in Monkayo, Compostela Valley Province, as Camp Kalao. A 1918 census map officially used the label and the appellation was included in the List of Geographic Names published in 1920.

A year later, in the 1901 Report of the Philippine Commission to the President (Vol. III), a brief, one-paragraph item on the hornbill was included, particularly citing a figure in terms of number of species that is different from today’s classification:

“There are 12 species of hornbills, not one of which occurs outside of the Philippines. These birds have most singular breeding habits, the males wall up the females in hollow trees when the latter are ready to attend to their maternal duties, by filling up the openings through which they enter with clay, leaving only small holes through which they can pass in food to their imprisoned wives. The hornbills are fruit eaters, and their flesh is excellent. The large species of the genus Hydrocorax frequent very high trees but can readily be called own within range if one hides one’s self and imitates harsh notes.”