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 Hoopoe - Fact File


The hoopoe in flight

Upupa epops
Scarce passage migrant.
On passage mostly found in coastal fields, dunes, golf courses, etc.

Combination of pied and pinkish plumage and long crest unique.

26 - 28cm (10.5")


Whenever a hoopoe is reported it attracts a throng of admirers. The remarkable black and white tipped crest, when elevated like the headgear of a Red Indian, conspicuous barring of the back and broad wings, together with vinous head, neck and underparts make the bird unmistakable.

Hoopoe: photo © Arkadiy Yarmolenko

Searching for food on the ground the head bobs to and fro as it walks. On the wing the hoopoe provides a dazzling effect recalling an erratically flitting butterfly, wings alternately slowly spreading and closing, exposing and concealing black and white barring.

But the hoopoe is capable of remarkable agility when evading a bird of prey. One avoided a merlin. The two birds were first seen at a height of some 200 feet. Yet within five minutes each had risen so high that they were lost to sight.

It can climb in tight circles, its rounded wings providing better 'lift'. The hawk was able to follow only by long straight climbs which took it some distance from its prospective prey. These climbs were followed by sudden swoops which the hoopoe neatly avoided, causing the merlin to perform yet another long climb to gain sufficient height.

Feeding quietly, a hoopoe can be surprisingly difficult to detect on the ground especially when probing with long decurved bill. It may only reveal itself when spreading wings to take fight. Shortly after it may flop down and disappear as if by magic.

Norfolk birders know the hoopoe as a spring and autumn passage migrant, but only in small numbers. As might be expected the majority of observations are near the coast. However from time to time examples are reported in the Brecks and Fens.

During 1993 single spring/autumn hoopoes were found in Norfolk at Burnham Norton, Dilham, Heacham, Salthouse Heath, Saxlingham Nethergate, Sea Palling and Weybourne. In addition an exhausted one was caught and taken into care at Shipdham at the beginning of the year.

Surprisingly one appeared at Horsford for 10 days towards the end of November 1993. Not to be outdone Taverham claimed another exotic hoopoe, displaying a differently patterned crest, in mid-December which provided elusive viewing.

Over-wintering is decidedly unusual. The Taverham visitor spent much time hunting for insects and larvae among fallen leaves in scrubby woodland.

In the past decade over 400 hoopoes have been observed in Norfolk. Early issues of the county Bird Report show that 1968 was exceptional with 30 occurrences (compared with a lone bird the previous year). Usually sightings relate to singles, but that year 'overshooting' pairs caught up in anticyclonic weather in the spring were found at Cley, Cromer, Frettenham, Hunstanton and Winterton. Perhaps the same birds were noted at more than one locality. Among favoured sites are golf-courses and vicarage lawns.

There is no evidence of hoopoes nesting in Norfolk. But one spring maybe a pair will occupy a hollow tree (or even a nest-box) and rear a brood of seven or eight young.

There are 30 odd cases of proved breeding in Britain including a remarkable four pairs in 1977 when nests were discovered in Avon, Somerset, Surrey and Sussex. But the anticipation of several flying young was unfulfilled: one young hoopoe was taken by a sparrowhawk and at another locality both young and one adult was apparently killed by a fox.

Hoopoes breed across most of Europe, except Scandinavia, favouring open country and clumps of old trees including pollard willows, meadows orchards and olive plantations. Almost all migrate in autumn - usually at night - to winter in Africa, south of Sahara. Despite a flight described as flapping and bouncing on rounded wings hoopoes are considered capable of migrating across the Alps. They have been recorded to 21,000 feet in the Himalayas

.By Michael J Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.