What brightly-colored bird has a punk orange hairdo, doesn’t clean its dirty nest, and is a flying version of a skunk?
The hoopoe bird, of course, or upupa epops (which is a great name in itself)!
Three species: There are three species of hoopoe birds, identified by location, native to Africa, Eurasia and Madagascar. These three species show slight differences in coloration but have similar habits and vocalizations, since despite the distance, they are still family. Hoopoes are also related to kingfishers, bee-eaters and rollers. The fossil record shows them dating back to the Miocene Era, and fossils from an extinct relative date even further back to the Eocene (56-33 million years ago).
The name: Hoopoes are vocal birds and have a distinctive call which sounds like ‘Hooo Pooo’ and is repeated 3 – 5 times each time it calls. Hoopoes are largely silent outside the breeding season, but the male will utter his monotonous but attractive song for long periods in the spring and summer, often taking part in song duels with neighbors.
The primary call of a hoopoe is 3-syllable ‘oop-oop-oop’, with rare 4-syllable usage. One can also observe croaks and hisses, when the hoopoe is spotting predators or other sources of alarm. The females are known to produce wheezing cries during courtship rituals, and babies usually cry with a ‘tiiiii’ sound when trying to beg for food.
Hoopoes usually sing in various notes to attract mates. They are onomatopoeically named for their distinctive cry, which is used as a means to declare and protect their territories from rival intruders. Indeed, their conflicts and rivalries can get quite brutal and bloody! They fight and peck with their long bills, sometimes costing an eye or even more serious injuries.
Curiously, however, hoopoes appear to like the sound of music; they have been known to stop, perk up their crests and move their heads to the beat of nearby songs. However, they take a grave risk when they do this, since music can also often attract other birds of prey.
Appearance and Size: Hoopoes are 10-12” long with a wingspan of 18-20”. They are mostly cinnamon in color with black and white stripes on their wings and tails, weigh 1.5 to 3 ounces, and have an average lifespan in the wild of about 10 years. Hoopoes have small, round brown eyes and short grey legs and feet. The females are slightly duller in appearance than males, as with most bird species.
Their most distinctive characteristic is an orange crest of feathers with black tips on their heads that stands erect when they are alarmed or excited. They have a long pointed beak that curves downward and very strong muscles around its bill, which helps the hoopoe root around in the dirt and procure a wide variety of food like worms, crickets, larvae, ants, etc. This strong beak is also used to topple and search under large stones, strong tree barks and to probe through piles of dead leaves. Larger prey will usually be bashed against the ground or stones to kill them before ingestion. Harsh, but effective!
Reproduction: Curiously, female hoopoes, shortly after laying their eggs, will coat their clutch with a goo that acts as an antibiotic to protect the eggs, enhancing their survival. It also serves as an attractant to males even post-copulation, which in itself is an unusual trait that these hoopoes exhibit. Hoopoes seem to be the only nonhuman species among which females use makeup as an allure to mates!
Their incubation period after eggs are laid is about 15-18 days, during which the male feeds the female while she stays in the nest. The chicks start with downy feathers which begin to form quills within one week. The hatched chicks are then cared for by both parents for another 9-14 days, and start to fly about a month after hatching, remaining with their parents for another week before taking off on their own.
Behavioral Traits: Hoopoes are largely monogamous, at least for each season, and they are also quite territorial. These birds have a peculiar courtship ritual that revolves around food. The male presents insects to the female for her to eat — a type of so-called “nuptial gift.” Obviously, the male hoopoe knows the way to a lady’s heart!
When nesting, females sit on their eggs while being regularly and exclusively fed by their male partners. The nestlings, in turn, within a week after hatching, operate to protect themselves by hoisting their butts skyward and squirting liquid streams of faeces at any intruders, while hissing loudly like a snake to scare them away, or fighting them off with wings or pecking at them with their long, sharp bills! So beware, you potential party crashers; these birds play pretty rough. Check out this defense mechanism at work:
Hoopoes apparently sunbathe by spreading out their wings and tail low against the ground and tilting their head up, while folding their wings and preening, although this position may also serve as a defensive posture used to fend off predators. They like little better than a good dust or sand bath, stirring up a big cloud of debris while indulging themselves! So they don’t even need to go to the beach to enjoy the sand and sun…
Habitats and Migratory Behavior: The European and Northern Asian hoopoes migrate South to the tropics during the wintertime, while the African hoopoes are sedentary and do not migrate seasonally. They like meadowlands and relatively open forests with bare or lightly vegetated ground that is good for foraging insects, but they also want vertical surfaces with crevices and cavities in which they can build nests. Consequently, they can live in a wide range of habitats such as heathland, wooded steppes, savannas, grasslands, and forest glades, as well as in olive groves, orchards, vineyards, parkland and farmland, although they tend to decline in intensively farmed areas.
Predation: Hoopoes are preyed upon mostly by larger birds of prey and snakes, and sometimes by foxes as well. Hoopoes eat worms, insects and small reptiles and feed them to their young. They also will occasionally eat seeds and berries. They are mostly solitary ground foragers, although they can be seen taking swarming insects in the air at times as well. Their strong, rounded wings make them fast and maneuverable. Movement of the hoopoe’s wings is often said to resemble the movement of the wings of a butterfly. But mostly they are ground feeders, digging into the earth for grubs and insects with their long sharp beaks. They like to toss their prey in the air and then catch it in their beaks before consuming it, after removing their victim’s legs and wings. Best not to venture out alone at night with these guys around, especially if you’re attached to your appendages!
Cultural Roles: Hoopoes were considered sacred in ancient Egypt, depicted on walls of tombs and temples. Hoopoe representations are also found to denote a child as an heir and successor to his father. In the Bible, hoopoes were considered detestable and not eaten, nor were they kosher. These birds also appear with King Solomon in the Koran, and were seen as a symbol of virtue in Persia. In contrast, they were considered to be thieves in much of Europe and as harbingers of war in Scandinavia, and associated with death and the underworld in Estonia. Talk about cultural differences!
In May 2008, the hoopoe was selected to be the national bird of Israel, and it is an official mascot of the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. In Morocco, hoopoes are traded live and as medicinal products, potentially threatening their local populations there. Hearing a singing hoopoe before a pressing of wine is often considered as foretelling a good vintage for that particular year.
Vulnerability: Although the hoopoe is listed as of “Least Concern” by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), hunting in southern Europe and Asia is threatening this beautiful feathered being, which makes it important to step up conservation measures and laws to ensure that its numbers do not fall significantly. It has also been found that hoopoes thrive best in areas of low-intensity farming with minimum use of pesticides. Like many other species, hoopoes need intact habitat to do well, so let’s remember to share our Earth nicely with these colorful, spirited creatures.
By Fred Jennings