Upupidae – Hoopoes

African Hoopoe Upupa africana ©Trevor Hardaker Website

The Upupidae are a small family of near passerine birds. They are medium-sized birds, 25cm to 32cm long, with a 44cm to 48cm wingspan. They weigh 46g to 89g. They are highly distinctive, with a long, thin tapering bill that is black with a fawn base. The strengthened musculature of the head allows the bill to be opened when probing inside the soil. The hoopoe has broad and rounded wings capable of strong flight; these are larger in the northern migratory species. They have a characteristic undulating flight, which is like that of a giant butterfly, caused by the wings half closing at the end of each beat or short sequence of beats. Adults may begin their moult after the breeding season and continue after they have migrated for the winter.

Their call is typically a trisyllabic oop-oop-oop, which may give rise to its English and scientific names, although two and four syllables are also common. An alternative explanation of the English and scientific names is that they are derived from the French name for the bird, huppée, which means crested. In the Himalayas, the calls can be confused with that of the Himalayan Cuckoo Cuculus saturatus, although the cuckoo typically produces four notes. Other calls include rasping croaks, when alarmed, and hisses. Females produce a wheezy note during courtship feeding by the male. Both sexes, when disturbed, call a rough charrrrrr, strongly reminiscent of the warning cry of the Eurasian Jay. The food begging call of the nestlings is similar to that of a common swift: tiiii.

In what was long thought to be a defensive posture, hoopoes sunbathe by spreading out their wings and tail low against the ground and tilting their head up; they often fold their wings and preen halfway through. They also enjoy taking dust and sand baths. Their diet is mostly composed of insects, although small reptiles, frogs and plant matter such as seeds and berries are sometimes taken as well. They are solitary foragers, which typically feed on the ground. More rarely they will feed in the air, where their strong and rounded wings make them fast and manoeuvrable, in pursuit of numerous swarming insects. More commonly their foraging style is to stride over relatively open ground and periodically pause to probe the ground with the full length of their bill. Insect larvae, pupae and mole crickets are detected by the bill and either extracted or dug out with the strong feet. Hoopoes will also feed on insects on the surface, probe into piles of leaves, and even use the bill to lever large stones and flake off bark. Common diet items include crickets, locusts, beetles, earwigs, cicadas, ant lions, bugs and ants. These can range from 10mm to 150mm in length, with a preferred prey size of around 20mm to 30mm. Larger prey items are beaten against the ground or a preferred stone to kill them and remove indigestible body parts such as insect wings and legs.

Many authorities consider the Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops), which is a colourful bird found across Eurasia, notable for its distinctive crown of feathers, to be the only extant Hoopoe. Others have elevated Madagascar Hoopoe to a full species, but, according to the IOC there are three species of hoopoe, they are:

Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops
African Hoopoe Upupa africana
Madagascan Hoopoe Upupa marginata

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 3

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