Hurrah for the Hoopoe

By Melvyn Kohn
October 17, 2008

Upupa epops seems like the name of a 15th century Sephardic mime. It happens to be the Latin name for the national bird of Israel, the Hoopoe, which name is derived from the Greeks, who had a legend about King Tereus, who pursued his wives, the sisters Procne and Philomena with an axe, and for this was changed into a Hoopoe; I guess the Hellenic gods did not like axe murderers. In his metamorphosis the regent spent his time calling "Hoop - Hoop", presumably from the Greek "pou, pou", meaning, where, where? Enough etymology. This bird is one nice looker. One of the best in birddom, which is beset with LBJs, little brown jobs that only ornithologist bother to know the exact names of. And not to mention some rather ugly critters as well, take a look at some of the vultures and you will not question their unkosher status.
However, the Hoopoe is on the proscribed list in Leviticus and Deutoronomy. Europeans esteem it for its taste, but don't expect it to be served up in Haifa.
It has one of the largest contiguous ranges in the avian world, stretching from the Gulf of Finland to South Africa, from France to Japan. There are nine subspecies, though taxonomists are broiges over two of these, africanus and marginatus, as there may be enough differences to make for seperate species. The Israeli subspecies is the nominate one, U.e.epops. The ancient Hebrews did not split such hairs, they knew it as Dukipath, which King James mistranslated as the Lapwing.
In addition to its tony orange, black and white plumage, it has its insectivorous proclivities to recommend itself with. It east lots of harmul insects, including the Pine Procesionary Moth (Thaumetopoea piterocampa) pupae. Hoopoes nest in trees, rock scrapes and occasionally on the ground. Divorce rate is high, with most marriages lasting only one season. Both male and female share nesting and feeding duties. Four to five white eggs are laid per pair. It can be gregarious at times, Paula Arnold in her 1962 book "Birds of Israel" notes that the sight of several of these in one place is a delight. She also writes that it appears only in northern and central Israel, appearing mostly from February to September, but that some were starting to overwinter. I recall some odd sightings in the UK from the 19th century or earlier, but cannot cite an exact reference. Not likely to be seen in these isles. It has an undulating flight and is good at evading raptors. Recent DNA analysis shows it to be closest to hornbills and wood hoopoes.


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