HOOPOES Upupidae The Hoopoes are a small Old World family of two or three species (see below) of similar birds. All have long, thin, and decurved bills; broad round wings; square tails crossed by a wide white band, and long erectile crests. This Madagascar Hoopoe (left) has its crest erected. All species also have dramatic black and white wing patterns (the patterns vary between the species) that show in flight or, as below (same bird as upper left), when the bird is preening. Behaviorally, they remind me (a New World resident) of American flickers. Both hoopoes and flickers appear superficial to be birds of the trees (and both nest in tree cavities), but each spend most of their foraging time on the ground, probing the leaf-litter. Hoopoes are exotic in appearance, but they are open-country birds -- birds of savanna and broken woodlands -- and do not occur in dense jungle (e.g., absent from rain forests of the Congo basin).


There is no clear agreement on how many species there are. There is but one genus (Upupa) and five subspecies. Clements (1991), following Sibley & Monroe (1991), split the hoopoes into two species, the Eurasian (U. epops; ranging across Eurasia and in northwest Africa) and the African (U. africana; ranges through much of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar). Fry, Keith & Urban (1988) consider them all one species -- the more traditional view -- because behaviorally the Eurasian and African birds are similar, and the plumage differences are minor. However, Fry, Keith & Urban (1988) also state that "a much stronger case can be made for separating Madagascan birds specifically, their voices evidently being quite different." If one were to follow this view, there are three species: Eurasian, African, and the vocally distinctive Madagascar Hoopoe U. marginata. This is the position taken by most recent authorities on Madagascar (e.g., Morris & Hawkins 1998) and the one that makes the most sense to me.

The Eurasian Hoopoe (right) is only slightly less rich in color than the Madagascar bird. It has one of the world's greatest scientific names -- Upupa epops -- that rolls eponymously across the tongue. OOO papa EE pops! There is also just something about a hoopoe. Perhaps it is because it is quite a rarity in England. It is annual there -- averaging 125 per year in the period 1958-1967, and a few have remained to breed (Sharrock 1974) -- but it still is quite a good find on one's local patch, and especially exciting because it looks so odd. I can no longer locate the reference, but someone has said that hoopoes had an affinity for vicar's gardens. This image has remained with me for many years.

I rather like Witherby et al's (1943) description of the Hoopoe's behavior: "Feeds mainly on ground, walking with ease (and even running) with accompanying movement of head. Fond of feeding on lawns and path or, alternatively, on manure or refuse-heaps, probing for larvae, etc. Crest depressed when at rest, but erected when excited or alarmed and for a moment on settling. Flight is not weak and uncertain as it appears, for it will readily elude trained falcons, mounting easily into the air away from them. Perches in trees, as well as on buildings, walls, etc., and according to Lilford will occasionally climb up tree like a woodpecker, but this is not usual. Fond of dust and sand-baths."

And so there you have an image of the hoopoe, evading the trained falcons as it searches for a vicar's garden in which to take a dust bath before probing the refuse-heap ....

The species is much rarer in the New World, with but a single specimen collected on 3 September 1975 at Old Chevak, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska (Dau & Paniyak 1977). This male added "a new species and family (Upupidae) to the avifauna of the Western Hemisphere," they write, but the bird had been discovered the day before as it "fed among drift logs and debris."  I wonder if the "drift logs and debris" were near the shaman's garden at Old Chevak.

Photos: The Madagascar Hoopoe Upupa marginata (top two shots) was photographed in the Ampijoroa Reserve, northwestern Madagascar, in Nov 1992. The Eurasian Hoopoe U. epops was at Srinigar, Kashmir, India, in Aug 1978. All photos © D. Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic essay

Family Book: there is no family book "per se" of which I am aware, but I anticipate that the Handbook of the Birds of the World series will have its usual outstanding family introduction and superb photos when that volume appears this summer (1999).

Other literature cited:

Clements, J. F. 1991. Birds of the World: A Check-List. 4th ed. Ibis Publishing, Vista, CA.

Dau, C. P., and J. Paniyak. 1977. Hoopoe, a first record for North America. Auk 94: 601.

Fry, C. H., S. Keith, and E. K. Urban. 1988. The Birds of Africa. Vol. 3. Academic Press, London.

Morris, P., and F. Hawkins. 1998. Birds of Madagascar: A Photographic Guide. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sharrock, J. T. R. 1974. Scarce Migrant Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A.D. Poyser, Berkhamsted, U.K.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Witherby, H. F., F. C. R. Jourdain, N. F. Ticehurst, and B. W. Tucker. 1943. The Handbook of British Birds. Rev. ed. Vol. 2: Warblers to Owls. H. F. & G. Witherby, Ltd., London.