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African Hoopoe

Hoopoe, African

Scientific name: Upupa Africana (“Upupa”: imitating the bird’s call; “Africana” plus Latin = ‘from Africa’) Shona: mhupupu or chigubhubhu
NB All these names – ‘hoopoe’, ‘upupa’, ‘mhupupu, ‘chigubhubhu’ – are onomatopoeic, i.e. the name imitates the sound made by the bird.

Click here to listen to the call:

This distinctive bird is very easy to recognise: there is no other bird like it in appearance.  They are often seen and heard in suburbs of cities, especially where there are green lawns, during our summer (the ‘rainy season’).  They bob earnestly and urgently around the lawns on their short legs, probing and prying with their lightly curved beaks for small insects and larvae, earthworms, small frogs, snakes and lizards, and flying termites which they sometimes catch on the wing.   

The colour is a lovely creamy chestnut brown, vividly contrasted with bold black and white stripes which you can see when they take flight, which they do in elegant swoops.  The head is topped with a dramatic crest which, except when they are aroused or alarmed, is kept folded back.  Look out for them.  Or more likely: listen out for them, especially in the early morning and evening, especially in summer.  The call is a beautiful liquid note, hoop-hoop, usually repeated, as if from a kind of musical instrument, the low notes from a flute perhaps.  Listen to the beautiful recording on the website above.  It is sure to be already familiar to you.  

The sub-species that we see here do not breed here but north of us in central Africa.  But there are some more northern sub-species of this bird that travel all the way from Central and Northern Africa across the Mediterranean to Europe to breed and are a common sight in Italy during the European summer; some of them even fly across the Alps, Western Europe’s highest mountains.   They nest in a variety of places: hollowed out trees, crevices in rocks and walls.  The hoopoe is one of the kinds of birds that features in the Bible: it is one of the unclean animals (Lev 11:19).  They are notorious for their very smelly nests, and this may be the reason! 

Stephen Buckland

Dr. Stephen Buckland – Lecturer in Philosophy but also a keen amateur bird watcher.

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