This is the time of year when I look at my little patch of lawn in the mild December sunshine and miss the winter visitors who used to add little dabs of colour and movement on the grass. Alas, in the last few years, with the erstwhile fields now transformed into towering concrete jungles, these feathered friends have forsaken us. Among these was one of my favourites—the hoopoe.
The Eurasian hoopoe (Upupa epops) is a striking bird distinguished by its appearance. A fawn-coloured bird, about the size of a myna, it has zebra-like black and white markings on its back, wings and tail; and the head is topped by a conspicuous fan-shaped crest. It has a long, slender, gently curved beak.
The bird has a soft, musical hoo-po or hoo-po-po call which may go on intermittently for ten minutes at a stretch. It may be this call that has given rise to its name. Another possible root of its common English name is that it is a derivation of the French name for the bird huppee which means crested.
Hoopoes have two basic habitat requirements: bare or sparsely vegetated ground and vertical surfaces with cavities for nesting. Hence they are found in a wide range of habitats including lawns, gardens, and groves. They are usually found singly, but sometimes in pairs, striding over the ground and periodically pausing to probe the ground to forage for food. They eat mainly a variety of insects, small reptiles, frogs, plant matter, seeds and berries. The beak is also used as a lever to move stones and flake from tree bark. The strong musculature of the head allows the beak to be open like forceps when probing the soil. While probing, the crest is folded back into a neat point behind the head.
While mainly a ground-walking bird with a quail-like waddling gait, the hoopoe has broad, rounded wings capable of strong flight. Due to the wings half closing at the end of each beat or short sequence of beats, hoopoes have a characteristic undulating flight like a giant butterfly. As it lands, the crest opens out fully, as it does when the bird is agitated or frightened. The hoopoe likes to sunbathe by spreading its wings and tail close to the ground and raising its head. Hoopoes also enjoy dust and sand baths.
Hoopoes are territorial and the males call out to proclaim the ownership of their territory. The male and female pair for a single mating season. The nest is in a natural hollow in a tree or wall lined untidily with straw, rags and rubbish; which usually make the nest stink. The female alone is responsible for incubating the eggs. It is the stink which act as the defence against predators. The stink is not just from the rotting rubbish but also from a foul-smelling liquid generated by the incubating female. The secretion is rubbed into the plumage of the mother and chicks to deter not just predators but also parasites and harmful bacteria. The secretions stop when the nestlings are about the leave the nest.
These distinctive birds have made a cultural impact over much of their range. Considered sacred in Ancient Egypt, they were depicted on the walls of tombs and temples. The Egyptian considered the hoopoe as symbolical of gratitude because it repays the early kindness of its parents in their old age by trimming their wings and bringing them food when they are acquiring new plumage.
The Arabs call it the doctor, believing it to possess marvellous medicinal qualities. The hoopoe is also considered a waterfinder. It can see through the earth and can point out hidden springs, a virtue which is much appreciated by desert dwellers.
In contrast, hoopoes were thought of as thieves across much of Europe and as harbingers of war in Scandinavia. In Estonian tradition, they are strongly connected with death and the underworld. Their song is believed to foreshadow the death of people or livestock. But in many parts of the world they are seen as harbingers of good things.
In the Middle East, there is an interesting legend about how the hoopoe got its crown. Solomon the wise king was once journeying across the desert, and was fainting with heat, when a large flock of hoopoes came to his assistance, and by flying between the sun and the King, thus protecting him from the strong sun.
Grateful Solomon asked the birds how he could reward them. After some consultation among themselves the hoopoes answered that they would like each bird to be decorated with a golden crown. Solomon cautioned them that this would not be in their own interests, but as the birds persisted, he gave each Hoopoe crown of gold. For some days the Hoopoes preened in self-admiration and showed off their gift to all the other birds. Then a bird-catcher discovered the prize on their head, and as the word spread, every hunter in the land started pursuing and catching hoopoes. The hoopoes’ very existence was in danger. They begged for forgiveness for their greed and requested Solomon to take away their crowns of gold. Solomon granted their request, and removed the golden crown from their heads; but, being unwilling that the birds should be left without a mark by which they might be distinguished from their fellows, he substituted a crown of feathers for that of gold. And thus the Hoopoe still wears its distinguishing crown of feathers.
It must be that Solomon also gave the hoopoes the gift of wisdom. A classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem titled The Conference of the Birds tells the allegorical story of thirty birds who set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh. The birds are led through the journey by the Hoopoe who the birds recognize as their spiritual leader thus:
Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide:
It was on you King Solomon relied
He knew your language and you knew his heart.
Nevertheless each bird is afraid to undertake the journey, and comes up with its excuses. The poem is made up of one-to-one stories in which the Hoopoe addresses each bird’s concern and excuse. What makes the Hoopoe’s responses even more insightful are the anecdotes and stories that follow each piece of advice. The Hoopoe is full of words of encouragement and wisdom reminding the birds to look at the bigger picture and aspire for the higher goals; explaining that the quest for ultimate wisdom must not be limited by oneself or the system! These words are as relevant to every one of us too.
The ocean can be yours; why should you stop
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in beams.”