Hoopoe (Upupa epops)

This bird caught my eye a few weeks ago, so it’s about time I blogged about it. Hoopoes have a bit of a funny name, but more importantly they are very funny looking. In fact, they are so unique that they are placed in their own family, Upupidae.

Hoopoes are Old World birds, and are found in Europe, Asia and Africa. Populations in Europe and Asia are migratory, while the African birds stay put year round. Hoopoes can use pretty much any habitat, as long as there is open ground to forage on, and nesting areas, such as cliffs, trees, or walls.

Hoopoes reach sizes of 25-32 cm, and have wingspans of up to 48 cm. They are brown on their top half and belly, with very visible white and black striped wings. Their beaks are long and thin, which helps make these birds easily identifiable. But probably the most distinctive feature of hoopoes is their large crests, which can be extended to look super silly.

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Look how dumb hoopoes look with their crests raised! Image credit: Artemy Voikhansky via Wikipedia

Hoopoes feed primarily on insects; it is for this that their long beaks are extremely useful. They forage by walking along the ground and sticking their beaks into the dirt. Their bills are extremely strong, and can be opened while in the ground, or used to move stones. Hoopoes can fly, and will sometimes pursue swarming insects in the air, but most often they stay on the ground while feeding.

Breeding in hoopoes can be quite a dangerous affair. Males violently defend their territory, and fights can result in a bird going blind. Once a pair bond is formed, it lasts for the season, but no longer. Nests are usually built in vertical surfaces, such as trees or walls. Females lay between four and twelve eggs, depending on location.

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I think they’re quite pretty, when they don’t have their crests up. Image credit: Dûrzan cîrano via Wikipedia

Once the eggs hatch, both parents are responsible for caring for the chicks. The young birds fledge after about a month, and leave their parents a week later. The young of any species are vulnerable to predators, but if I were a hungry hunter, I would stay away from hoopoe chicks. They have some very nasty ways of defending themselves.

Females who are brooding eggs produce a liquid that smells of rotting meat, and rubs this over her feathers. Once the chicks have hatched, they too produce this secretion, which scares off predators and parasites. When they are six days old, the chicks can shoot faeces at any potential predators, and can also stab at them with their long bills. The moral of the story: stay away form hoopoe nests.

Hoopoes are definitely neat birds, though I’d definitely avoid one if I met it in the wild. I’m not sure I want to smell like rotten meat or be stabbed in the eye with a sharp pointy bill. No, I’ll admire them from the warmth and safety of my bed.

Cover image credit: Nitulakshmi via Wikipedia

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