HAMERKOP Scopidae The Hamerkop (left) is the sole member of its family, endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. It is a denizen of marshy shorelines (lakes, rivers, estuaries), hunting along the water edge and eating mostly frogs and tadpoles. It roosts and nests in large isolated trees. Indeed, its huge bulky nests can be seen for miles. The bird photographed in flight here is carrying vegetation to continue work on such a nest, which is a central chamber inside a huge elaborate pile of reeds, grass, and sticks.

The origins and relationships of the Hamerkop are obscure. Elliott (1992) well summarizes what is known this way: "Superficially the Hamerkop's bill recall those of both the Shoebill Balaeniceps rex [of Africa] and the Boat-billed Heron Cochlearius cochlearius [of the Neotropics], but this is normally attributed to convergent evolution. It has pectinated middle toe as in the herons, a free hind toe as in the flamingos, egg-white protein like the stocks and yet ectoparisites which are only otherwise found in plovers. To confuse matters further, its habits and behaviour are unique, leaving taxonomists with little option but to place it in it own monospecific family."

The Hamerkop is about the size of a night-heron, but slimmer & longer in shape, with a weird broad bill balanced against a pointy crest out the nape, leading to an English alternate name "hammer-head." The word "Hamerkop" is the equivalent in the Afrikaans language (thus of Dutch-German origins). I freely admit that until this very day on which this web page was created, I have consistently misspelled the name as "Hammerkop" which, I think, is how the word is pronounced.

The Hamerkop is a common and familiar bird throughout Africa south of the Sahara. It adapts rather well to the presence of man, and it is revered by many local tribes. It has been claimed that is the origin of more legends and superstitions than any other bird. It is considered "magical" because of its large, impregnable, inaccessible and therefore mysterious nest (Elliott 1992). Often claimed to be nocturnal, it is actually active only during the day. But, like many African birds, it feeds in the cool of the dawn and dusk, and roosts calmly during the heat of the day.

My friend Terry Stevenson is an expatriate Brit who is now a great East African birder. He was the "resident ornithologist" at Lake Baringo Lodge when I first met him back in 1981, and is now a well-known tour leader throughout the continent. Terry owns a house at Lake Baringo, Kenya. He tells me that a wild Hamerkop has adopted this homestead as its own, wandering at will into portions of the house, and paying little attention to the human inhabitants. I know of no other birder who can claim such a house pet....

Photos: The Hamerkop Scopus umbretta was photographed in flight at Lake Baringo, Kenya, on 16 Nov 1981. Photo © D. Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note:

There is no "family book" of which I'm aware, nor would one expect there to be such a single volume. A fine introduction to the family, with a well-chosen selection of good photos, is in Elliott (1992). As always with African species (or at least those in the early part of the taxonomic order since the series is still in production), a very useful entrée into this species is in Brown, Urban & Newman (1982).

Literature cited:

Brown, L. H., E. K. Urban, and K. Newman, eds. 1982. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 1: Ostriches to Birds of Prey. Academic Press, London & New York.

Elliott, A. 1992. Family Scopidae (Hamerkop) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

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