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The Punishment Of The Faithless One


Although most bird-lovers know that the Trumpeter Hornbills of Southern Africa make their nests in hollow tree trunks, it is not everyone who knows that, once the hen has laid her eggs, her husband seals the entrance with clay.  He leaves only a small slit open through which he can pass food.  So she is imprisoned inside the tree trunk until the young birds are old enough to be fed from outside.  Then he breaks open the hole so that she can help him feed the fledglings.

If you ask the people of Matabeleland, they will tell you that the Hornbill cannot be blamed, for his wife richly deserves her imprisonment.  It all started like this they say- in the days of long, long ago.  The Hornbill and his wife used to build their nest in the treetops; they used twigs, well sewn together with hair from the tails of zebra and wildebeests.  Inside, the nest was plastered with clay, and was lined with the softest thistledown.

They were a happy pair.  Three fine eggs lay in their snug little home.  Proudly the Hornbill sought the tastiest fruits in the forest, so that his dear wife need never leave the nest and the precious eggs.  To find her favourite fruits, her devoted husband searched farther and farther away, which meant that the time he was away grew longer and longer. 

Trumpeter hornbill of Southern Africa by Nicolas Huet

by Nicolas Huet

Each day the dutiful wife turned the eggs beneath her, gently caressing their smooth white surface with her great beak.  She had no thoughts beyond the joy of the first moment when her young ones would break from the shells that held them. But there was a wicked tempter abroad in the forest, in the form of a handsome bachelor who called softly to her from the treetops, trying to tempt her away from the eggs.  At first she did not listen to this stranger but, as her husband was away for so long, she started to think wistfully of the days when she used to enjoy happy flights over green forests.

As soon as he saw her longing, the tempter increased his persuasion for her to join him on his joy-flights.  "One little flutter will not harm my precious eggs!" she thought. "Just one short flight with such a handsome companion! I will be back long before my husband returns."

What followed is not difficult to imagine.  Every day, while the Hornbill husband searched the forest for dainties for his wife, she was flitting over the countryside with the gay-feathered bachelor.  Day by day their pleasure-flights grew longer.

One day the Hornbill found a big marula tree full of fruit nearby, that had escaped the notice of this sharp eyes in the past.  Therefore, he was home much sooner than usual, his crop swollen with the delicacies that he had found for his beloved wife.  To his dismay he found their nest empty, and the three precious eggs barely warm. "What can have happened?" he  wondered. "Has some dreadful monster carried off my dear wife?" Surely he would have heard her cries!

At least he could try to save the babies, he decided, by keeping them warm with his own body, and he settled down clumsily.  He had been sitting on the eggs for only  a few minutes when he heard laughter and merrymaking. "That is a voice I know," he said to himself.  Then into sight flew his wife and the handsome male Hornbill. The husband flew upon this intruder with rage, and there is still talk among the birds of the fierce battle that followed.  The wicked tempter was put to flight as he deserved and driven far away, while the faithless wife returned in disgrace to her nest.  But she had been away too long this time, and there was no warmth nor life in the eggs.

Carefully the guilty wife hid the truth from the Hornbill as week after week, she sat upon the lifeless eggs.  When, eventually, no chickens hatched her husband guessed the dreadful truth.  He chased his guilty wife from the nest and one by one he flung the eggs to the ground, then he set about destroying their lovely treetop home completely, next he looked for a tree trunk with a conveniently large hole in it, and inside this he made his wife lay her next clutch of eggs.

When the last egg had been laid, he cemented his faithless wife securely into the tree trunk allowing only a small slit to remain open.  And that, so they say, is why to this vey day, the Trumpeter Hornbill imprisons his wife in her nest, only breaking away the plaster when his fledglings are ready to leave the nest.

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