Spain, in early April, the orange sun gets warmer every day and the temperature is already pushing into the twenties. An increasingly infrequent downpour from the clouds last night has softened the Crème-brûlée soil into a mush – worms and insects are abroad on the surface taking advantage of this rare moisture. In this shrubby patch of garrigue penned in by housing developments on either side, humans and nature alike are glad of the reprieve from urbanity which seems to stretch unbroken along the coast. The hum of early bees is pierced by a three-tone call that – like a Cuckoo’s – appears to emanate from a great distance yet at the same time sounds so close. ‘Woop-woop-oop’, sounding like a wet cloth rapidly rubbing on a window, this resonating voice appears to have no owner; then out of a eucalyptus tree casually flaps what at first looks like a huge black and white butterfly. Its needle-sharp bill betrays it as a bird though, and once it has landed upon the soggy ground it immediately probes and pecks for unwary worms or beetles. In the open this bird looks extraordinary; mostly coloured a sunset-peach but highlighted by broad black and white bands on its wings and tail, its bill is slightly down-curved and its elegantly tall neck gives it a pompous air. When another of its kind alights on a nearby branch the bird’s excitement betrays its best asset; a wondrous Mohican of feathers tipped with black and spread in a near-circle like an oriental fan – this is the Hoopoe.
An old wives tale states that the Hoopoe stole its crest from the Cuckoo to wear at a wedding, in fact there are many legends associated with this beautiful bird; which is no surprise considering its attention-grabbing appearance and large range (which covers most of Asia, much of Africa and all but the north of Europe). Upupa epops is truly an enigma, and not just for its unique look, for it is the sole extant species of its family (a giant, flightless Hoopoe endemic to the isle of St Helena became extinct not long after humans arrived – surprise, surprise) it’s closest relatives are the horn-bills – massive black birds with a bill like a rhino’s horn – which don’t really look much like it. In folklore it is often associated with good fortune and the Egyptians held it as sacred, although paradoxically it is also frequently associated with death and was said to predict war or famine. It also has an unfortunate habit of probing dung for invertebrate prey, and its nest is notoriously smelly and dirty with excrement – these attributes gave it the name of ‘Dung bird’ and it is listed as an ‘unclean’ creature in the bible for the same reasons.
In Britain it is seen most years along the south coast, usually in spring, but it has only nested twenty times in the last two-hundred years as it is right on the edge of its range. It nests in tree holes, often old woodpecker nests, the male provides all the food until the chicks are old enough to be left alone, this species is monogamous. Migratory in the north of its range, it is resident in warmer climes like the Mediterranean; I have seen these a few times in southern Spain and Greece, but considering how common they are I have found them to be frustratingly elusive. This bird is easily one of my favourites and seeing it is worth a trip to the continent by itself, I suspect many people have pursued a birdwatching hobby after seeing one of these fabulous birds – it is a privilege to encounter one.