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Hoopoe in a French Garden: Upupa Epops - Description, Range, Habits, Diet & Other Interesting Facts
Where does the Hoopoe come from?
What bird is this?
It was 7pm. I was sitting in our living room in France, looking out onto our wonderful garden where the lime tree spreads its broad, sheltering branches. There was a flutter of black, white and orange and there landed the most amazing, dazzling, exotic bird I've ever seen in the wild. It strutted about in quick, short darts, probing the ground, I presumed for ants. We have a variety of woodpeckers which grace us with their presence throughout the year and I thought this was another rarer example of the species; however, its beak was not broad and strong like the green woodpecker which makes large holes in his search for ants; it was long and thin. A lapwing, maybe?
This mesmerising bird had a tail and wings banded in broad, horizontal black and white. Its body and head was a warm, vibrant orange and atop the head was a crest, also in orange but spotted with black. The crest occasionally rose, just for a split second, as it found another unsuspecting object for consumption. Its colour is often described as pink-ish brown but can vary from chestnut to bright orange.
It took a while to find an image but we finally identified this wonderful creature as a Hoopoe (Latin name: Upupa Epops), a bird which flies north from Africa to nest and breed in central and southern Europe. The furthest it regularly goes in France is the upper central region, so we were indeed lucky to see it at the extent of its usual range, in our garden! It can be seen, though more rarely, in the south of England, if it overshoots its destination!
What Dazzling Markings!
Diet, Behaviour & 2 more visits!
This most welcome visitor, a little smaller than a jay (in fact from a distance, they can be confused), does eat ants but enjoys larger fare, such as crickets, cicadas and similar grubs, as well as most insects. It has jaw muscles which allow it to open the beak wide when in the ground, the better to extract its larger prey. In fact, I was delighted to see him (or her, perhaps) return the following evening, same time, same flight pattern, when he spent even longer foraging under the Lime; he found a few large grubs, he sat a while in the pleasant evening sun as if to digest and enjoy, with fluffed up feathers to keep him warm. Though constantly vigilant, turning his head this way and that, he seemed content to remain in our open, friendly premises and eat from our well-stocked outside larder.
I caught a brief glimpse of him once during the day, on a neighbour's ridge tiles, but he was nervous of movement below and flew off.
He visited once more, same time, same place, this time for about an hour! Once more he sat awhile, then flew off home to sleep. The next day, the weather broke and we didn't see him again. Maybe we never will but the photos my partner took remain for ever as a wonderful reminder of our rarest visitor yet.
Smelly Nests and other Interesting Facts
Having researched this bird a little more, I have come across some interesting facts.
The hoopoe is monogamous.
Its call is a 'hoo - hoo - hoo', hence its onomatopoeic name.
The female secretes an obnoxious liquid in the nest and since neither bird bothers to clean out their droppings, the nest is exceptionally smelly. Seems rather a shame for such a beautiful, immaculately dressed bird! The Vivienne Westwood of the bird world, I'd call it!
It is the only extant member of its species.
The Hoopoe's diet includes many insects and grubs considered to be pests. It is therefore protected in many countries, including most of Europe.
It has a cultural and historical role too.
Cultural & Historical Links
It is recorded, in the Qur'an, that Solomon believed that the Queen of Sheba worshipped the sun instead of God, so he wrote a letter asking her to come to him. There is a drawing depicting the delivery of Solomon's letter by a Hoopoe.
These birds were regarded as sacred by the ancient Egyptians and were 'depicted on the walls of tombs and temples'. Minoan Crete similarly revered the bird and it was a symbol of virtue in Persia.
The Hoopoe is the national bird of Israel (since 2008), the symbol for the Punjab province of India, is on the logo of the University of Johannesburg and is part of the coat of arms of the municipality of Armstedt, Germany.
However, they are not always referred to favourably. In the Bible the Hoopoe was listed as 'destestable' and not to be eaten, as well as 'not kosher'. Much of Europe regarded them as thieves and even as 'harbingers of war' in Sandinavia. In Estonian tradition they are 'strongly connected with death and the underworld'. The Hoopoe also features in ancient literature and legend. In Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', King Tereus is turned into a Hoopoe (or in other translations a lapwing), the crest 'indicates his royal status and his long, sharp beak is a symbol of his violent nature'.
Whatever associations it has, for me the hoopoe is an engaging, mesmerising bird of great beauty.
Under the Umbrella of the Lime Tree
All from a Chance Encounter in a Garden!
Well, I never expected all that to come from seeing this brilliant bird by chance, one Spring evening in a French garden. If you are lucky enough to have seen, or to one day see, a Hoopoe then you will know what I mean; an enthralling, enchanting, beautiful, quirky bird. I'll look for it next time - maybe it'll favour us once more.
In the meantime, I'll never forget how it darted into our personal world. It made me gasp, smile, stare and wonder. How nature outshines us all!
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