You Jelly?

When it comes to animal diets, choosing the right nutrients can be tricky. At the Virginia Zoo, we mimic each species’ natural diet as best as possible, supplementing various ingredients to ensure the animals get all of the fruits, veggies, vitamins, minerals and proteins they need. For a lot of our bird species, including the Rhinoceros hornbills, a soft bill diet is included daily to get the additional nutrients they need that fruit can’t provide.

This soft bill diet, which is created by a company called Mazuri, is intended for iron sensitive fruit-eating bird species. It comes in a powder that has various vitamins and minerals the birds need for proper nutrition, including vitamins E, B12 and A, as well as potassium, calcium, folic acid and biotin, which aids in the birds’ bill health.

Once a week, Chef Yohn turns the powder into a gelatin-like food for Keepers to offer to the birds alongside a range of fruits, including Riobi and Oona’s favorite: grapes. The process for making the gel is quite simple, and just like your favorite flavor of Jell-o, the gel has to sit in the fridge overnight to set. While the rhino hornbills’ gel doesn’t normally come in such vibrant colors as humans’ favorite wiggly treat, Chef Yohn gives his recipe some color or texture on occasion as extra enrichment.

hornbill gel


• 2.2 kg or 4.85 pounds of Mazuri softbill powder

• 7 liters of water

• food coloring

•at least 1 cup blueberries


Step 1: Bring water to a boil on stove.

Step 2: Add powder to water and stir until mixed.

Step 3: Mix in blueberries.

Step 4: Pour mixture onto a large pan and spread evenly.

Step 5: Add food coloring a few drops at a time to mixture to create marble effect, mixing as necessary.

Step 6: Place in refrigerator to cool over night.

Step 7: On the next day, cut the gel into one inch cubes.

Step 8: Feed the hornbills!