Tshukudu the ground hornbill. Picture: Howard Donaldson

Johannesburg -

Found: tallish. Four-years-old. High-flyer. Long eyelashes and wearing a dark black coat. Responds to the name Tshukudu, thunder or rain bird. Known for its independent streak.

After a night out on the town, an endangered southern ground hornbill was on Friday reunited with its family after it escaped from the Joburg Zoo on Thursday morning.

And no one is more relieved than Lara Jordan, the curator of birds at the Joburg Zoo. She thinks Tshukudu headed for Braamfontein, only to dodge its concrete, and spend the night on a tree in the upmarket reaches of Forest Town.

“He basically was always an adventurer,” said Jordan, who hand-reared the bird.

“He’s always been very independent. But a city like Joburg can be a death trap for a ground hornbill.”

Jordan runs the Associated Private Nature Reserves Ground Hornbill Conservation Project, together with the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute, to breed the species and boost their numbers.

There are only 1 500 ground hornbills left in the wild.

The zoo had appealed to residents to be on the lookout for the escapee after heavy rain had uprooted a tree that collapsed on a section of the ground hornbill enclosure.

Tshukudu saw his chance – and took it. He escaped through a hole, perching himself on a tree.

“He was just preening and cleaning himself. He held his wings out to dry. He was taking it all very much in his stride.”

That’s when the walk-about, or is it fly-about, really started.

“Then he decided to go for a flight. He flew to the main gate of the zoo. Changed his mind. And then he flew the other way.”

Watching him fly, Jordan thought he looked beautiful.

“He landed in some of the tallest trees in the zoo. He was very happy to sit up in there for a while.”

Then, a murder of crows must have spooked him. He flew out of the zoo. Where did he go? No one knows. But Jordan thought she saw him set off for Braamfontein.

“That was the last we heard of him. Once he got to Braamfontein, he probably thought ‘oh, no it’s not lekker here. There are no trees.’ He probably flew to Forestown.

“We’re fortunate. At his age, he would be really keen to come home to his family. His attachment to his group is huge. It’s only when they are about 10 that they leave their group.”

Still, Jordan spent Thursday night in a state, worried the bird would become disorientated, and never return. “It sucked,” she said.

Previously, another ground hornbill had escaped from her sky kennel when the birds were being moved for renovations in their enclosure.

But luckily, Tshukudu’s ingrained “GPS” was switched on. The following morning he popped back into the zoo. Jordan, who had borrowed a ground hornbill trap from Mabula, was elated.

Tracking him as he moved across the zoo, she and her colleagues coaxed the bird with bits of meat and crickets, until he flew into a boma.

“We kept him calm, talking to him in hornbill, and throwing him small amounts of food. He walked into the trap.”

“I was absolutely sure he was going to come back. But the risk was that he was in Joburg.

“There are a lot of things that could have killed him. If he tried to eat rats, they could have been poisoned. There are power line collisions.

“A city is really a death trap for a bird like the ground hornbill.”

Saturday Star