Phoeniculidae – Wood Hoopoes & Scimitarbills

Green Wood Hoopoe Phoeniculus purpureus ©Trevor Hardaker Website

The Phoeniculidae or Wood Hoopoes and Scimitarbills are a small African family of near passerine birds. They live south of the Sahara Desert and are not migratory. While the family is now restricted to Sub-Saharan Africa, fossil evidence shows that the it once had a larger distribution. Fossils attributed to this family have been found in Miocene rocks in Germany.

The wood hoopoes are related to the kingfishers, the rollers, and the hoopoe, forming a clade with this last according to Hackett et al. (2008). A close relationship between the hoopoe and the wood hoopoes is also supported by the shared and unique nature of their stapes. The wood hoopoes most resemble the true hoopoe with their long down-curved bills and short rounded wings. According to genetic studies, the two genera, Phoeniculus and Rhinopomastus, appear to have diverged about 10 million years ago, so some systematists treat them as separate subfamilies or even separate families.

The wood hoopoes are a morphologically distinct group, unlikely to be mistaken for any other. These species are medium-sized at 23cm to 46 cm long, much of which is the tail. They have metallic plumage, often blue, green or purple, and lack a crest. The sexes are similar in all but two species, the Forest Wood Hoopoe and the Common Scimitarbill. Their bills are either red or black, although young red-billed species also have black bills and bill colour is correlated with age. The legs are scarlet or black, short, with thick tarsi. They climb tree trunks in the manner of a woodpecker, and when feeding on the ground they hop rather than walking like the true hoopoe. Their tails are long and strongly graduated (the central feathers are the longest), and marked conspicuously with white, as are their wings.

They are birds of open woodland, savannah, or thornbrush, and are mainly arboreal. They require large trees both for feeding on as well as to provide hollows for nesting and nocturnal roosting. Two species are found exclusively in rainforest, the Forest Wood Hoopoe and the White-headed Wood Hoopoe. All the other species are found in more open woodland and bush.

They feed on arthropods, especially insects, which they find by probing with their bills in rotten wood and in crevices in bark. They nest in unlined tree holes, laying two to four eggs, which are blue, grey, or olive, and unmarked in most species.

There are generally considered to be just 9 species of Wood-hoopoes and Scimitarbills in the family Phoeniculidae; they are:

Forest Wood Hoopoe Phoeniculus castaneiceps
White-headed Wood Hoopoe Phoeniculus bollei
Green Wood Hoopoe Phoeniculus purpureus
Black-billed Wood Hoopoe Phoeniculus somaliensis
Violet Wood Hoopoe Phoeniculus damarensis
Grant’s Wood Hoopoe Phoeniculus granti

Black Scimitarbill Rhinopomastus aterrimus
Common Scimitarbill Rhinopomastus cyanomelas
Abyssinian Scimitarbill Rhinopomastus minor

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 9

Photographers & Artists
  • Green Wood-hoopoe Phoeniculus purpureus

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