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
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.