Friday, 29 May 2009

The messenger of wisdom

The Hoopoe that arrived at Great Ryburgh on 15th May quite rightly attracted a good number of birdwatchers. This clown-like bird, with it comical crest, buff-pink plumage, down-curved bill and pied wings, is a truly stunning species. Although not particularly rare as a visitor (there are typically between one and 29 records per year in Norfolk), it is striking enough to attract attention from even the most casual birdwatcher. Some readers will have encountered the Hoopoe when on holiday in France or around the Mediterranean, for it is a southern species with a northern breeding limit that sits just across the Channel from us. Records from southern Britain usually relate to birds that have overshot on their spring migration, as is the case with a number of other species that have turned up here over recent weeks. There are occasional autumn records but these are likely to be of birds from populations from further east.

The species has bred here in the past, including within the last couple of decades, but it seems to be limited by the lack of suitable quantities of its favoured large insect prey. Many early birds were shot; the species was a favourite with collectors and taxidermists because it looked so different from the majority of our other birds. Most of these spring arrivals turn up alone and remain for a few days but there are instances where a number have been seen together. One or two individuals have made more protracted stays and there is even a record of an autumn bird overwintering.

The Hoopoe feeds on the ground, taking earthworms and insects, with an almost Starling-like energy to its movements. However, unlike Starlings it is wary of Man and although it cannot truly be described as shy, it will keep its distance from observers. Mind you, it was approachable enough for collectors to take a heavy toll and, as Sir Thomas Browne noted writing in the Seventeenth Century, ‘it is easily shot!’ The Mediterranean distribution of the species may explain its incorporation into custom, folklore and language. The bird was used by the Egyptians as a hieroglyph and was portrayed by others as a messenger of wisdom. For example, it was the Hoopoe that brought wisdom to Solomon during his courting of Sheba.

Two features of the bird deserve special mention: the crest and the call. The crest is perhaps the most striking feature but it is only rarely raised. Normally it remains flat, curving back across the head to be raised but briefly as the bird alights on the ground. The call, a trisyllabic ‘oop-oop-oop’ is wonderfully evocative and is mirrored both in the bird’s English name and in the scientific name Upupa epops.

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