The great-crested cof­fin chaser

De­spite its ex­otic ap­pear­ance, the hoopoe has some dis­gust­ing habits. Take heed of its ‘poop­ing’ call, says David Pro­fumo, who ad­vises against vol­un­teer­ing for bird ring­ing

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THE Eurasian hoopoe, with its chief­tain’s head­dress and be­guil­ing call, is one of the rarer and more stylish vis­i­tors to our shores in spring­time. Its sci­en­tific name, Upupa epops, is among the most scin­til­lat­ing and ono­matopoeic of any bird and its mel­low mat­ing voice is still oc­ca­sion­ally heard around the Fens and south­ern coun­ties each May.

A denizen of warmer places, the hoopoe is widely dis­trib­uted through­out the Mediter­ranean and down to sub-sa­ha­ran Africa where its mi­grant pop­u­la­tions over-win­ter —it fea­tures on the stamps of 40 dif­fer­ent coun­tries. Gen­er­ally a fre­quenter of or­chards and grass­lands, it has been seen above 20,000ft in the Hi­malayas, although, in Bri­tain, one is more likely to witness its un­du­lat­ing, but­ter­fly-style flight in coastal re­gions (only an es­ti­mated 100 hoopoes visit us an­nu­ally).

For a dove-sized bird, the hoopoe is of some­what re­gal ap­pear­ance, with sal­mon and cin­na­mon up­per parts and a pied tail of strik­ing black and white. When its mag­nif­i­cent erec­tile crest is fanned, the head seems to be on fire (when com­pressed, it gives the bird a minia­ture pick­axe pro­file). Strong head mus­cles al­low the long, de­curved bill to be opened un­der­ground, as it jabs for its food.

Si­lent ex­cept dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son, the male ut­ters a soft, far-reach­ing tri­syl­labic call, ‘oop-rop-oop’, said to re­sem­ble the sound of blow­ing across the open mouth of an empty bot­tle. I’ve never heard this ‘poop­ing call’ in Bri­tain, but it’s com­mon enough in Morocco and Spain, where the tourist may of­ten en­counter these birds pa­trolling well-tended ho­tel grounds or dust­bathing in lanes. Here, they are al­leged to favour vicarage lawns.

They were ev­i­dently once more com­mon, as Sir Thomas Browne recorded in the Stu­art era: ‘Upupa or Hoope­bird so named from its note, a gal­lant marked bird wch I have of­ten seen and tis not hard to shoote them.’ In­deed, the hoopoe is read­ily ap­proach­able, which ac­counts for the large num­ber of glass­cased spec­i­mens dat­ing from less scrupu­lous times.

A soli­tary feeder that for­ages, head bob­bing, on open ground in search of spi­ders,

‘The Almighty con­demned it to feed off the ex­cre­ment of oth­ers

ants and crick­ets, it will take larger prey, such as small rep­tiles, and is es­pe­cially fond of prob­ing cow­pats for co­prophagous bee­tles and their lar­vae. In con­trast to its el­e­gant de­meanour, it has a rep­u­ta­tion for brows­ing in grave­yards and la­trines (pre­sum­ably for nour­ish­ing worms) and some early nat­u­ral­ists reck­oned it fed among rot­ting corpses—the Chi­nese even dub it the ‘cof­fin bird’.

A Hun­gar­ian Creation myth sug­gests the hoopoe spurned all reg­u­lar avian di­ets so the Almighty con­demned it to feed off the ex­cre­ment of oth­ers, per­haps aptly, for a bird that sings ‘poo’. This un­for­tu­nate as­so­ci­a­tion seems an­cient: in his com­edy, The Birds, Aristo­phanes has the hoopoe fash­ion­ing its nest from night­soil, the Germans know it as Mistvo­gel (dung bird) and, in An­jou, it en­joys the undig­ni­fied so­bri­quet coq puant.

This mal­odor­ous iden­ti­fi­ca­tion em­anates, in part, from its May­time nest­ing habits (sadly, it’s thought no more than 20 have bred in Bri­tain over the past two cen­turies). On the Con­ti­nent, you may witness spir­ited —even vi­cious—courtship spar­ring be­tween ter­ri­to­rial males, fol­lowed by nidi- fi­ca­tion in ex­tremely nar­row crevices and ver­ti­cal cav­i­ties, some­times in build­ings.

The in­cu­bat­ing fe­male de­fends the clutch by se­cret­ing from her uropy­gial gland a foul liq­uid, re­ported to reek like rot­ting meat, which ren­ders her nest so mephitic that pil­fer­ing ool­o­gists can eas­ily de­tect its where­abouts. In ad­di­tion, the nestlings them­selves re­pel preda­tors by squirt­ing fae­ces and hiss­ing like snakes. The coq puant is not the most pop­u­lar species among or­nithol­o­gists for ring­ing in the nest.

In folk­lore abroad—and es­pe­cially across Asia—the cof­fin bird has achieved quasimys­ti­cal sta­tus. Sa­cred to the Egyp­tians (that crest sig­ni­fy­ing rays of the sun), it is de­picted on tomb friezes and was a hi­ero­glyph for grat­i­tude, be­ing al­leged to look after its age­ing par­ents. Its cu­ra­tive pow­ers— treat­ing ev­ery­thing from lep­rosy to am­ne­sia —are still be­lieved in to­day and hoopoe corpses can be found in North African mar­kets, although only in Is­tan­bul have they been es­teemed for the ta­ble.

The bird was a favourite of King Solomon, be­ing re­warded with a crown of gold for shad­ing him on his desert jour­neys and lead­ing him to the lus­trous Queen of Sheba. Less ro­man­ti­cally, a Greek myth has Tereus, the vil­lain­ous King of Thrace who ate his son and rav­ished his sis­ter-in-law, meta­mor­phosed into a hoopoe, for­ever cry­ing

‘pou-pou’ (where, where?) as he searched for his tragic fam­ily.

De­spite its in­san­i­tary do­mes­tic ar­range­ments, in 2008, the spec­tac­u­lar and ma­ligned Upupa epops was of­fi­cially named Na­tional Bird of Is­rael (where it abounds), gar­ner­ing more than one mil­lion votes and beat­ing a short­list that in­cluded the white-spec­ta­cled bul­bul and the Pales­tine sun­bird.

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