The Eurasian Hoopoe

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 Every once in a while, I like to step back from my usual patter about the interesting things in the bird world and just talk about one bird in particular. This is about one I have seen many times but they always surpise me with their unusual appearance. Widespread across much of the Old World, the Eurasian Hoopoe is distinctive with its rufous-colored body, black and white striped wings, and a large crest of black-tipped feathers. Reminiscent of a woodpecker, the downcurved black bill is far longer and thinner.

Preferring open spaces for foraging such as savannahs and grasslands, hoopoes are often seen around developed areas such as parks and orchards. They eat insects and other small invertebrates as well as lizards, snakes, small rodents, and occasionally seeds and berries. Often the Hoopoe engages in “gaping” – capturing its soil-dwelling food by poking the closed bill into the ground then opening it to expose the prey item.

The hoopoe’s common name is derived from its “oop, oop, oop” call. Upupa epops, the scientific name, from the Latin and Greek, also refers to the call of the bird. And it belongs to the family Upupidae.

Territories are established and defended by a calling male. Pairs choose to nest in a tree or wall cavity. Rather than building a nest, they prefer nest holes with soft materials left by previous occupants. Four to 12 eggs are laid which the female incubates. During the breeding season, female hoopoes have symbiotic bacteria in their uropygial (preen) glands. They use the gland’s secretion to smear the eggshells, protecting embryos in the egg from infections by harmful bacteria. In the process the secretion changes the eggshell coloration, which indicates the eggs are protected, enticing the male to increase his feeding of the young.

Incubation lasts for about two weeks but since incubation begins after the first egg is laid, the eggs hatch asynchronously. This means that the success of the nest (the proportion of eggs that become fledglings) is dependent on the food supply. With attentive parents and a good food supply, all young might survive. A poor year for food, and the opposite happens. There is some evidence that female Hoopoes feed the youngest siblings to the older ones in times of food scarcity. It may even be that large clutches of eggs are laid just for that reason – extra eggs as food for the largest nestlings.

The Hoopoe, because of its unique appearance and common around human habitats, engendered various myths. It was a sacred bird in Egypt and ascribed miraculous medicinal qualities in Arab countries while Scandinavians believe it is the harbinger of war and other Europeans regarded it as a thief. In Morocco, hoopoes are traded live and as medicinal products in the markets, primarily in herbalist shops. In Manipur, India, locals believe that its mean prevents frequent urination and that its claws can be used to cure speech disorders. Being an unusual bird attracts unusual attention, I guess.

Harrison Tordoff, a Worled War II fighter ace and later a noted ornithologist, named his P-51 Mustang as Upupa epops.

1 thought on “The Eurasian Hoopoe”

  1. Very interesting information thanks Roger, in particular the info about the use of bacteria to protect the eggs. I miss seeing Hoopoes in our back yard in South Africa (Upupa Africana) Looks the same as the Eurasian one. We don’t have the large variety of birds here in New Zealand. Having said that, the Kiwi and the Tui are rather special.

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