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Harold the Hornbill

By Ruskin Bond / April 20, 1989

HAROLD's mother, like all good hornbills, was the most careful of wives; his father, the most easygoing of husbands. In January, long before the flame tree flowered, Harold's father took his wife into a great hole high in the tree trunk, where his father and his father's father had taken their brides at the same time every year. In this weatherbeaten hollow, generation upon generation of hornbills had been raised, and Harold's mother, like those before her, was enclosed within the hole by a sturdy wall of earth, sticks, and dung. Harold's father left a small slit in the center of this wall to enable him to communicate with his wife whenever he felt like a chat. Walled up in her uncomfortable room, Harold's mother was a prisoner for over two months. During this period an egg was laid, and Harold was born.

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In his naked boyhood, Harold was no beauty. His most promising feature was his flaming red bill, matching the blossoms of the flame tree, which was now ablaze, heralding the summer. He had a stomach that could never be filled, despite the best efforts of his parents, who brought him pieces of jackfruit and berries from the banyan tree.

As he grew bigger, the room became more cramped, and one day his mother burst through the wall, spread out her wings, and sailed over the treetops. Her husband pretended he was glad to see her about, and played with her, expressing his delight with deep gurgles and throaty chuckles. Then they repaired the wall of the nursery so that Harold would not fall out.

Harold was quite happy in his cell, and felt no urge for freedom. He was putting on weight and feathers, and acquiring a philosophy of his own. Then something happened to change the course of his life.

One afternoon he was awakened from his siesta by a loud thumping, a sound quite different from that made by his parents. Soon the wall gave way, and there was something large and yellow and furry staring at him - not his parents' bills, but the hungry eyes of a civet cat.

Before Harold could be seized, his parents flew at the cat, both roaring lustily and striking out with their great bills. In the ensuing melee, Harold tumbled out of his nest and landed on our garden path. Before the cat or any predator could get to him, Grandfather had picked him up and taken him to the sanctuary of the veranda. Harold had lost some wing feathers and did not look as though he would be able to survive on his own, so we made an enclosure for him on the front veranda of our north Indian home, and Grandfather and I took over the duties of his parents.

Harold had a simple outlook, and once he had got over some early attacks of nerves he began to welcome the approach of people. Grandfather and I meant the arrival of food, and he greeted us with craning neck, quivering open bill, and a loud, croaking, ``Ka-ka-kaee!'' Fruit, insect, or animal food, and green leaves, were all welcome. We soon dispensed with the enclosure, but Harold made no effort to go away; he had difficulty flying. In fact, he asserted his tenancy rights, at least as far as the veranda was concerned. One afternoon a veranda tea party was suddenly and alarmingly convulsed by a flash of black and white, and noisy flapping; and behold, the last and only loaf of bread had been seized and carried off to his perch near the ceiling.