The mainly rufous-coloured African hoopoe with its fluttering flight, somewhat reminiscent of a giant butterfly, presents a distinctive sight in the woodland, savanna, and gardens of Southern Africa. Its far-carrying, rather mellow call of hoop-hoop or sometimes hoop-hoop-hoop, repeated several times and usually made from a perch high in a tree, is a familiar sound to anyone who spends a little time in the bushveld. The sound travels well, though, and even once heard it might be difficult to locate the calling bird. The call gives the bird its descriptive Afrikaans name of “Hoephoep”. Its range is wide, taking in Africa, Madagascar, Europe, and even parts of Asia. In Southern Africa it is found in almost all areas save for the desert, although numbers vary considerably from place to place.
With a length of about 27 cm, the African hoopoe is more-or-less the size of a small dove and the male is slightly larger than the female. Although they have similar plumage, the female may be duller than the male. The head, back and underparts are bright rufous; the wings barred black and white; the tail black with a white at base; the bill is long and slightly decurved. They also have a crest that is normally kept flat, forming a point behind the head, but which is often raised on landing or when the bird is alarmed. The pinkish-yellow legs are rather short.
The African hoopoe is often solitary, or found in pairs. They forage for insects, earthworms, frogs and little snakes while walking on ground, often probing beneath the grass and leaves for likely morsels. They sometimes hawk for termites that are in flight and may be a familiar sight in sparse vegetation and even on garden lawns.
The hoopoes, which are usually monogamous, do not excavate their own nests, but nest in a natural hole in the ground, in a termite mound, a wall, or a hollow tree. In this nest the female lays a clutch of between 2 and 6 pale blue or olive green eggs, which hatch after an incubation period that averages 17 days.
In the nest, the nestlings are not the most hygienic of birds. They are able to produce a foul-smelling secretion (this may also be produced by the female parent during this time of early parenthood), said to smell like rotting meat, that is rubbed into the plumage. In addition they are able to direct a stream of faeces at any intruders. Nice!
The hoopoe is thought to be the “lapwing” mentioned in the Old Testament, and one of the reasons that Moses thought it unfit for food was because of its nesting habits. In Ancient Egypt it was believed that the bird could detect water and would indicate where to dig a well. It was also believed to be able to cure many diseases.
The hoopoe is the national bird of Israel.
The scientific binomial of the African hoopoe is Upupa africana; upupa being Latin for a hoopoe and africana being the Latin meaning from Africa. Thus a hoopoe from Africa, which seems quite appropriate, really.