The flamboyant hoopoe is dressed to impress and has a beguiling song to match. Rob Hume shares his lifelong love affair with one of Europe’s most beautiful birds.
“Look! it’s, er… it’s a woodpecker!” I knew the bird wasn’t really a woodpecker, but had to call it something. How else could this schoolboy point out such an unfamiliar black-and-white creature fluttering over a patch of waste ground in the coalfields of the English Midlands in November?
It looked unlike anything else in my experience. This was an inexplicable time and place to see my first ever hoopoe, but it just goes to show: with birds, you should expect the unexpected.
Even before they expanded their scope to cover mainland Europe, beginners’ books on British birds often featured the hoopoe. The species was included, I suppose, to spice up field guides with an exotic taste of sunnier climes. Like many an eager young birdwatcher, I singled it out as a must-see.
About 100 hoopoes arrive in the UK each year, but trying to catch up with one that’s been reported on our shores is far from easy. They appear and then disappear as if by magic, and seldom hang around.
The majority of these hoopoes arrive in spring: those migrating north from Africa to Iberia and France have a tendency to overshoot, flying a little too far. Since most birds are precise in their migrations – the swallow in your shed is probably the same one that nested there last year – the hoopoes’ behaviour is more likely to have long-term value than to be a mere accident.
So, might pioneering individuals find conditions here to their liking and settle, thus extending the species’ range, as happened with little egrets?
A warm welcome
It is sometimes suggested that warmer summers may tempt hoopoes to become regular British nesters. I’m sure they would be welcomed here with open arms, but so far there’s little sign of colonisation, with fewer than 50 known instances of breeding in the past two centuries.
Hoopoes, after all, are partial to big, fat grubs. If birds such as cuckoos, which depend on large, nutritious caterpillars in spring, are going downhill fast in this country, then it hardly seems likely that hoopoes will find conditions here to their taste.
In truth, these are package-holiday birds, which can be glimpsed on beach holidays anywhere in the Mediterranean. They are also widespread from early spring to autumn across most of France, Spain and Portugal, and over much of eastern Europe.
Without doubt, they rank among the continent’s most stunning birds – a flash of dazzling black and white combined with a liberal dash of pale orange, offset by long, sabre-like bills and topped with extraordinary make-believe fans on their crowns.
What do hoopoes need for a good life? Firstly, some kind of hole in which to nest, in a tree, wall, cliff or even an old rabbit warren. Secondly, dry ground with sparse, low-growing vegetation or bare sandy soil, where they can run around unhindered on their short legs to find food, and, finally, a few trees to which they can retreat when danger threatens.
Olive groves and stands of cork oaks suit hoopoes fine, as do small meadows with tumbledown walls and outbuildings. Hotel lawns and flowerbeds are worth checking for grubs, but intensive farming is bad news.
As for most wild things, a stony, weedy, flowery field with an abundance of grubs and beetles is much better than a neatly planted, uniform crop. That’s why hoopoes, sadly, have a poor outlook in Britain, whatever the weather. Rising temperatures alone will not help these bobby-dazzlers to spread north.
As if their outlandish plumage were not enough, hoopoes also have a startling ability to show how they are feeling. Usually they hold their crests closed, like tapered spikes extending from the backs of their heads, but if their mood swings to alarm or excitement, the birds flick open the elongated plumes in a dramatic ragged fan. It’s a bit like the avian equivalent of your hair standing on end.
Hoopoes are, indeed, splendid creatures, but finding them can be tricky.
Off the pages of bird books, in their native habitat, they simply vanish, lost amid the dappled, rippling shade and flickering leaves at the bottom of hedges, among the poppies, daisies and tassel hyacinths beneath ancient olive trees, or against the dark fissures of crumbling orange drystone walls.
Now you see them...
In this visually chaotic environment, the birds’ distinctive form dissolves. The rhythmic movement of their springing walk, heads bobbing back and forth like those of pigeons, crests half-opening and closing, combines with complex patterns of bars and stripes and their gorgeous sunset-hued bodies to create highly effective camouflage.
Many times I have strolled through a hoopoe’s favourite patch thinking the bird was not at home, only to see it materialise out of thin air. Then, with a deep flap of its wings, and a brief rollercoaster ride over a wall, it’s gone again. Even a fleeting encounter is a rich reward, but I make a mental note to approach more warily next time and to spot the bird before it notices me.
If I manage to follow a hoopoe in flight over a longer distance, I never tire of watching its curiously jaunty, buoyant action. The wings flick and jerk in and out, until it settles again with a momentary, brakes-full-on flurry of widely fingered wingtips and fanned tail.
Probe, bash, swallow
On the ground, hoopoes waddle and rush forwards in short sallies, pausing to probe sparse grass or loose earth for some trifle. Like starlings, they have strong muscles around their heads, so that they can open their bills even when they are pushed into the soil. The birds pick up food with the tips of their bills, toss their heads back to get a better grip, then quickly swallow and move on.
Larger prey, such as a locust or lizard, is subdued by bashing it against the ground in much the same way that a song thrush deals with a snail, before being broken into manageable pieces.
Poop, poop, poop
I like to slip out early in the quiet of morning to listen for hoopoe song, an understated performance that is as much a part of the Mediterranean soundscape as the tinkling bells of sheep and goats. So much so, you might not notice it at first – you need to concentrate to bring the sound to the fore among the breaking-glass twittering of serins and corn buntings, the throaty music of nightingales and the staccato bursts of chattering fired off by Sardinian warblers.