birds hoopoe


Birds: Hoopoe

The arid plains of Extremadura were glaringly hot as the train pulled forward from a dead stop at the station. Railroad cars don’t pass between Portugal and Spain: the tracks and wheels are a mismatch. Instead travelers wait on the ramp at the cross-border Iberian station and hop aboard the next train going in their direction, whenever that one arrives. We had been waiting for hours, putting the paper train schedule to good use as a handheld fan against the June heat. To say that the Portuguese and Spaniards are casual about their train arrivals and departures would be an understatement, at least in comparison with the German’s and Swiss — countries of flawless precision. “This is Andalusia, hombre. What’s the rush? Besides it’s siesta time and the sun is bloody hot. There will be time to get to Salamanca, when the Renfe conductors are ready to leave…” … “Todos a bordo!”


Settling in by the opened window on the train was a blessing. As we started moving, the slight breeze, though warm, moved swiftly enough to dry the sweat before it fully saturated my shirt. Heading east at a lazy pace across the Extramadura, I stared out the windows at the horizon, an accentuated blur. The heat waves rising from the rocks and clay became a mirage of water visible in the distance. A view closer into the train shadow was interrupted by flying objects that were bolting out from under the bushes adjacent to the tracks. The objects shot up and away from the train, as if flushed by a Pointer. It must be a bird. With a body the color of the landscape, the bird had these amazing wings with black and white bars across them. What was this bird?

African-Hoopoe2c Postage Stamp from Botswana

One flew far enough away from the train, landing on a fence, for me to focus a quick look with binoculars. Its undulating flight led me to believe it was a woodpecker or flicker. When it flashed its rusty, black-tipped crown, I knew immediately it was a male Hoopoe.

images 1

 Baltimore Bird Watching

A neighbor and dear friend from Maryland, Ellie Johnson, was the first bird fanatic I knew. As a backyard bird lover, Ellie would take anyone who were interested to see the Yellow Crowned Night Heron’s nest in the sycamore, or the American Bittern’s roots in the reeds, or the Baltimore Orioles’ woven basket nest in the orchard, or the Wood Duck’s home in the hollowed-out tree trunk. I went on those neighborhood trips as often as I could and always learned something new. Ellie Johnson and her family took their birding passions global: the Amazon, the Nile, the Danube … every great river basin is also a bird migration path worth exploring.

After one trip to Africa, where Ellie and her husband, Jerry, fell in love with South Africa, they also studied the Hoopoe. Having seen Hoopoe’s all over Europe and Asia, Ellie took a particular interest in recording everything she could find about the bird.  In due time she became an authority on the Hoopoe.

With a name like Hoopoe, Ellie’s tales of the bird attracted the attention of our family, the Hooper’s! Even if only for the homophonic aspects of the names, she made them seem exotic and exciting to us. I do not have a copy of her research, but I remember a meeting at her house and hearing about her love and fascination for the bird. She had studied the Hoopoe in the geological record, art history, and the bible. She would go on and on about this remarkable bird, which was unknown to North American birders. The complete and comprehensive pamphlet she wrote was her labor of love.

My sister, Nancy Caplan, said, “I was the lucky one to have gotten one of Aunt Ellie’s prized Hoopoe pictures. I used to go over to their house, and as an adventure, she would have me search out how many Hoopoos I could find in all of her rooms. I found dozens of Hoopoe images for they were on china plates, framed pictures, hanging curtains, sofa pillows, in cubbie holes…you name it, she had a Hoopoe on it. When Leigh Caplan and I were at the Smithsonian in December, 2014, we spotted a beautiful picture of a Hoopoe in the hall of nature pictures. And we found out that it is Israel’s national bird!”

Seeing the colorful bird on the wing in the high plains of Spain was a particular thrill for Nancy and me. Our family friend, Arch McCallum, from the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions, had spotted the Hoopoe in Southern Spain and a golf course in India. How he remembered the day, year and place is beyond me. People like Ellie Johnson and Arch have that special talent, which is remarkable to us less avid avian lovers. Nancy and I marked the bird on our life lists and made sure to tell Ellie of our sighting, when we returned from Europe.


Upupa Epops 

This species was included among the birds cataloged by Linnaeus in the 1750’s.[1] At the time three varieties of Hoopoe were recorded with breeding ranges extending from Northwest Africa to Europe, through central Russia, west to China, and south to India. Later, upon further sightings, their territory was expanded to include South Africa, East Africa, Madagascar, and large swaths of Asia.


The Hoopoe /ˈhp/ (Upupa epops) is a colorful bird found across Africa, Europe and Asia. It is noted for its distinctive ‘crown’ of black-tipped tan feathers and its black and white wing pattern.

Hoopoe in flight_web filtered_filtered

It is the only species in the family Upuidae. Like its Latin name Upupa, the English name for this bird onomatopoetically imitates the cry of the adults: hoopoo, hoopoo, hoopoo.


Hoopoe Range Orange (Nesting), Green (Resident), Blue (Wintering)

The Hoopoe is classified taxonomically among some of my favorites African birds: kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers, and woodhoopoes. [2] (Full disclosure, I have never been to Africa, but that has not stopped me from checking out the birds spotted by the Johnson’s while on safari in the Dark Continent.)

According to Wikipedia [3], the fossil record of the Hoopoes is very incomplete, with the earliest fossil coming from the Quaternary Period. The fossil record of their relatives, the woodhoopoes is older, dating back to the Miocene Era, and those of extinct relatives in related families dating from the Eocene. [4]




A medium sized bird, the Hoopoe is generally between 9.8 and 12.6 inches long, with 17.3 and 19 inch wing span and weighing about 3 ounces. They are highly distinctive with their long, thin tapering bill: black with a fawn color at the base. The birds head and neck are quite strong allowing the bird to open and shut its bill, when probing it into the soil.  The Hoopoe has broad and rounded wings that make it capable of strong flight. The birds’ characteristic undulating flight comes from the wings, which it half-closes at the end of each short sequence of wing beats. [5]

The call is typically a tri-syllabic oop-oop-oop. The Hoopoe makes other call sounds, offering up a rasping croak or loud hiss, when alarmed. Both genders also have a call that resembles a rough charrrrr, which sounds like the warning cry of a Jay. Nestlings are said to give a plaintive cry for food which resembles a Common Swift. [6]

hoopoe (1)



The Hoopoe has two basic habitat requirements: lightly vegetated ground on which to forage and vertical surfaces with cavities for nesting. Nests have been located in trees, cliffs or even walls, nestboxes, haystacks, and abandoned animal burrows. These two requirements can be provided in a wide range of ecosystems. As a result Hoopoes inhabit a wide range of habitats from heathland, wooded steppes, savannas and grasslands, as well as glades inside forests. The modification of natural habitats by humans for various agricultural purposes has led to them becoming common in olive groves, orchards, vineyards, parkland and farmland, although they are less common and declining in intensively farmed areas. [7]

Interestingly, although they do not migrate very widely, Hoopoes were spotted at high altitude. During the first Mount Everest Expedition in the Himalayas, a migrating flock was identified at 6,400 m (21,000 feet). [8]


Hoopoe with Cidada Larvae

Diet and Feeding 

Subsisting on a diet mainly of insects, small reptiles and amphibians, the Hoopoe forage for seed and berries from time to time, while searching for other food on the ground. More rarely they will feed in mid-air, while in pursuit of a swarm of insects.  They are acrobatic fliers which makes their aerial pursuits fast and maneuverable. Still their long beaks and quick reflexes often pause to probe the ground for insect larvae and pupae. The most common insects in their diets include locusts, beetles, earwigs, cicadas, ant lions, ants and crickets.[9]

Hoopoe family, John Gould, 1837



Hoopoes are apparently monogamous, although that term is loosely interpreted by the mating pairs. Monogamy for Canada Geese is for life; for Hoopoes the marriage bond lasts only a single mating season. Once the chicks have fledged, the pair is free to roam.

An apt description of their breeding behavior is that Hoopoes are territorial. The males’ challenging call is a frequent reminder that he is the owner of the territory and all other males should steer clear or suffer the consequences of trespassing. The resident male chases and fights rival males and the battles can be brutal. Birds will stab each other with their long bills and can blind and badly maim their opponents. [10]




The nest of the mating pair is typically a hole in a tree or wall, with a narrow entrance; it may be unlined or decorated with various scraps of straw or twigs as lining. Of the couple, the female Hoopoe is solely responsible for incubating the eggs. The male brings her food during early incubation. Clutch sizes vary from four eggs to a dozen in various parts of the world. The eggs are round and milky blue when first laid but quickly discolor in the increasingly dirty nest. The eggs weigh about 4.5 grams.

The incubation period for the species is between 15 and 18 days. During incubation the female is fed by the male. The incubation period begins as soon as the first egg is laid, so the chicks are born asynchronously. The chicks hatch with a covering of downy feathers, by around day three to five feather quills emerge which become adult feathers. The chicks are brooded by the female for between 9 to 14 days. [12] The female later joins the male in the task of bringing food. The young chicks fledge in 26 to 29 days and remain with the parents for about a week.[13]


Smelly Defense System

Most animals have well-developed defense mechanisms with horns, armor, claws and spikes. Many others are highly adept at spraying or projecting their urine and feces at intruders. The Hoopoes also have well-developed anti-predator defenses; theirs start in the nesting phase. The female has a gland which, while incubating, quickly modifies its capabilities and can produce a foul-smelling liquid to protect the nestlings. These secretions are rubbed into the plumage of the babies. The secretions, which smells like rotting meat, are thought to help deter predators, as well as deter parasites. The secretions can possibly act as an antibacterial agent.[14]


The females’ secretions stop soon before the young leave the nest. In addition to these secretions, nestlings are able to direct streams of their own feces at nest intruders from the age of six days. Since most animals fear snakes, the young Hoopoe will also hiss at intruders in a snake-like fashion. The young grow quickly into versatile warriors: able to strike intruders with their bills or with one wing.



Relationship with Humans

Hoopoes are distinctive birds and have made a cultural impact on the people over much of their range. They were considered sacred in Ancient Egypt and their image is often depicted “on the walls of tombs and temples.” The birds have been depicted in pottery and ceramics in many places across the centuries. Hoopoes are known as the King of Birds in plays by Aristophanes. They achieved a similar standing in Minoan Crete. [14]



The Hoopoe, spelled as דוכיפת in Hebrew, is the National Bird of Israel, which seems strange. In the Old Testament (Leviticus 11: 13 – 19) the Hoopoes were listed among the animals that are detestable and should not be eaten by the Jews. In Deuteronomy (14: 18) Hoopoes are listed among the non-kosher food items.


They are both revered and feared in different parts of the world with very different traditions: in Persia they are seen as a symbol of virtue, while in Scandinavia they are a harbinger of war. They are strongly connected with death and foreboding in Estonia,[15] while they are loved in South Africa as the official mascot for the University of Johannesburg. In Punjab, India, the Hoopoe is hailed as the state bird. [16]

The most unusual relationship with the Hoopoe, however, seems to be with followers of Islam. Hoopoes appear in the Quran in Surah Al-Naml (27: 20–22) in the following context: “And he Solomon sought among the birds and said: How is it that I see not the Hoopoe, or is he among the absent? (20) I verily will punish him with hard punishment or I verily will slay him, or he verily shall bring me a plain excuse. (21) But he [the Hoopoe] was not long in coming, and he said: I have found out (a thing) that thou apprehendest not, and I come unto thee from Sheba with sure tidings.” Islamic literature also states that a Hoopoe saved Moses and the children of Israel from being crushed by the giant Og after escaping the Egyptian army and crossing the Red Sea.[17]



Ellie Johnson would be pleased that the story of the Hoopoe is one of success rather than extinction. But it is not all joy in Hoopoe land, several of the species have been put on the endangered list because of hunting and drastic changes to the animal habitat. No bird is safe from environmental impact, and none is immune to the hubris of humans. The Hoopoe, though, has been remarkably adaptive; it has survived many of these changes over the centuries and it has maintained its wide and diverse geographic range.

With good fortune and clever diversity, the Hoopoe will continue to have a place on this planet, with or without human intervention (preferably without).

Next time you are taking that slow train in Egypt or India or Russia or Spain, look out the window. Keep your eyes peeled for a moving object the color or the earth, dancing in the light, and flashing its colors to the hidden mate. It just might be a Hoopoe getting ready to put on a show.


And if all else fails, look for statues of the Hoopoe. We spotted them in Burgos, Spain, at the famous cathedral, and even in Central Park, New York, at the Tisch Children’s Zoo.


At Children’s Zoo, Central Park, NY


Burgos Cathedral, Burgos, Spain

Keep your eyes pealed. Who knew, they are everywhere?


Notes from Wikipedia and other sources:

[1] Linnaeus, C (1758). Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. Holmiae. (Laurentii Salvii). pp. 117–118.

[2] Hackett, Shannon J.; et al. (2008). “A Phylogenomic Study of Birds Reveals Their Evolutionary History”. Science 320 (1763): 1763–1768.doi:10.1126/science.1157704PMID 18583609

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoopoe

[4]Mayr, Gerald (2000). “Tiny Hoopoe-Like Birds from the Middle Eocene of Messel (Germany)”Auk 117 (4): 964–970. doi:10.1642/0004-8038(2000)117[0964:THLBFT]2.0.CO;2.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoopoe

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoopoe

[7] Kristin, A (2001). “Family Upupidae (Hoopoes)”. In Josep, del Hoyo; Andrew, Elliott; Sargatal, Jordi. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 6, Mousebirds to Hornbills. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. pp. 396–411. ISBN 84-87334-30-X.

[8] Ali, S. and Ripley, S. D. (1983). Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Volume 4 (2 ed.). Oxford University Press, New Delhi. pp. 124–129.

[9] Kristin, A (2001). “Family Upupidae (Hoopoes)”. In Josep, del Hoyo; Andrew, Elliott; Sargatal, Jordi. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 6, Mousebirds to Hornbills. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. pp. 396–411. ISBN 84-87334-30-X.

[10] Martín-Vivaldi, Manuel; Palomino, José J. and Soler, Manuel (2004). “Strophe Length in Spontaneous Songs Predicts Male Response to Playback in the Hoopoe Upupa epops”. Ethology 110 (5): 351–362. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0310.2004.00971.x.

[11] Martín-Platero, Antonio M. et al. (2006). “Characterization of Antimicrobial Substances Produced by Enterococcus faecalis MRR 10-3, Isolated from the Uropygial Gland of the Hoopoe (Upupa epops)”Applied and Environmental Microbiology 72 (6): 4245–4249. doi:10.1128/AEM.02940-05PMC 1489579.PMID 16751538.

[12]Fry, Hilary C. (2003). Christopher Perrins, ed. Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Firefly Books. p. 382. ISBN 1-55297-777-3.

[13]Martín-Platero, Antonio M. et al. (2006). “Characterization of Antimicrobial Substances Produced by Enterococcus faecalis MRR 10-3, Isolated from the Uropygial Gland of the Hoopoe (Upupa epops)”Applied and Environmental Microbiology 72 (6): 4245–4249. doi:10.1128/AEM.02940-05PMC 1489579.PMID 16751538.

[14] Fry, Hilary C. (2003). Christopher Perrins, ed. Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Firefly Books. p. 382. ISBN 1-55297-777-3.

[15] Mall Hiiemäe, Forty birds in Estonian folklore IV. translate.google.com

[16] Dupree, N (1974). “An Interpretation of the Role of the Hoopoe in Afghan Folklore and Magic”. Folklore 85 (3): 173–93.doi:10.1080/0015587X.1974.9716553JSTOR 1260073.

[17] M. Th Houtsma (1987). E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936. Brill Academic Publishers. p. 990. ISBN 9789004082656.

4 thoughts on “Birds: Hoopoe

  1. Pingback: The Humble Hoopoe: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study VI | Santa Monica Bay Audubon Blog

  2. Henry, I think Ellie Johnson would be pleased. Her passion is being passed on. Great tribute to a great bird. ~~Arch

    b.t.w., two memorable McCallum sightings of Hoopoes:
    My first, on a wooded street in New Delhi in September 1972. The place was crazy with birds. Among them were two hoopoes, flying from tree to tree and clinging to the trunks, like woodpeckers.
    Another, taking a break from a riotous Thanksgiving abroad in Colmenar, Spain, I drove down to Malaga to look for birds. Didn’t find much, but did see a Hoopoe probing a green at a golf course.

    • Dear Arch,
      Thank you for inspiring me to explore deeper into the life and science of all avian creatures. It has been a joy that started with the first one in our midst, a sharp-shinned hawk. You are a marvelous ornithology lover and gifted natural science teacher/writer. I am forever in your debt. — Henry

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