Named onomatopoeically after its triple-‘hoop’ cry, and resembling a gigantic pink butterfly with spectacular black and white wings, or an extravagantly ornamental Art Deco brooch designed by Erté and magically gifted with ethereal life, the hoopoe has fascinated me from my earliest days, ever since I first saw its elegant image gracing one of the pages of my now decidedly battered childhood copy of The Observer's Book of Birds. Reading its description, I was very excited to discover that this exotic species actually visits Britain annually, and has even bred occasionally in south England. Naturally, therefore, imbued with the eternal optimism that only a youngster can muster, I fervently hoped that one day soon my trusty Greenkat 10 x 50 binoculars would reward me with a sighting of this wonderful butterfly bird, possibly even within the urbanised surroundings of my West Midlands homeground.
As the years went by, I nurtured my hoopoe obsession by reading whatever I could find concerning this enigmatic creature. And so I learnt all about its predominantly insectivorous diet and the surprising oil-ejecting defence behaviour of its chicks; was shocked by lurid details of its disgustingly filthy nests and its vicious territorial battles; was startled by the unexpected discovery in 1975 of subfossil remains from a hitherto-unknown species of giant hoopoe Upupa antaios on the South Atlantic island of St Helena; and in particular was very enamoured by the wealth of folklore and legends associated with this feathered icon.
According to one ancient Arabian tradition, for example, hoopoes originally bore crests of solid gold, bestowed upon them by King Solomon in gratitude for shielding him with their wings from the burning sun one day as he walked through the desert. So many of their number were killed for this valuable accoutrement, however, that eventually they came before Solomon, who was so wise that he could even understand the language of birds, and beseeched him to help them. Touched by their tragic plight, Solomon agreed to do so, as a result of which the hoopoes’ crests were transformed from gold into feathers, thus saving their species from extinction.
The hoopoes are also said to have brought to Solomon the shamir – described in the Talmud and Midrash as a tiny but very magical worm that could cut through solid stone, and which greatly assisted him, therefore, in building his First Temple in Jerusalem. (In a similar vein, the hoopoe is also credited with knowledge of where to find a mystical plant called the springwort, whose touch can break through the hardest rocks and stones.) And in the Koran, it was the hoopoe that discovered the Queen of Sheba and informed Solomon of her existence. Other Arab traditions claim that the hoopoe could unerringly guide Solomon to undiscovered subterranean springs by using its long bill as a water-divining rod, and consider it to be a doctor among birds, gifted with medicinal powers that can cure any ailment.
Meanwhile, in Greek mythology, King Tereus of Thrace, his queen Procne, and her young sister Philomena became embroiled in such a hideous saga of rape and bloodshed that Zeus transformed all three of them into birds. Terus became a hoopoe, Procne a swallow, and Philomena a nightingale.
By the time of my late teens, I realised, sadly, that just like so many other dreams, mine of seeing a hoopoe in England was probably destined never to be achieved. Consequently, if the hoopoe would not come to me, I would have to go to it. And so it was that during the summer of 1978 I went on a coach-touring holiday in Andalucia, Spain, where I hoped to espy not only the hoopoe but also two of its cousins.
The taxonomic order Coraciiformes contains some of the most colourful families of near-passerine birds, in particular the kingfishers, the rollers, the bee-eaters, and the hoopoe/wood hoopoes (nowadays the two hoopoe groups are generally split into separate families but back in the late 1970s they were still combined). Moreover, at least one species from each of these families could be found in Andalucia – the European kingfisher Alcedo atthis (which I’d already seen in Britain), the European roller Coracias coracias (a very rare summer vagrant in Britain), the European bee-eater Merops apiaster (a rare summer visitor to Britain and very occasional breeder here), and of course the hoopoe itself.
Sadly, the roller never made an appearance, but bee-eaters were readily visible perching on telegraph wires, as pointed out to me by our tour guide, Pedro - who, as good luck would have it, was also an enthusiastic amateur ornithologist, always carrying a birdwatching field guide and binoculars with him, and ensured that I never missed any of his region’s native avifauna during our various trips. One evening, moreover, he informed me to my great delight that during our sightseeing tour the next day we would be in an area where hoopoes were commonly sighted! Finally, at the age of 18, I would be seeing my long-awaited butterfly bird – the best coming-of-age present I could have wished for!
Fate, however, had other ideas. During that same night, I fell ill with an acute stomach bug, which was so severe that I had no option but to forego my planned tour the following day and spend the whole time in bed instead. That evening, when my party returned from the tour, Pedro came to see how I was, and informed me that they had indeed seen hoopoes – which, if anything, made me feel even worse than the stomach bug had succeeded in doing! Never mind, I consoled myself, surely I would see some before too long? And indeed I did – the only problem was that in my case the period “before too long” turned out to be 30 years!
Had good fortune shone upon me, however, it might not have been quite so long, and I wouldn’t even have needed to travel very far to fulfil my undiminished ambition of seeing a hoopoe. It was late afternoon on Monday 9 October 2006, and I was casually flicking through my local evening newspaper, the Express and Star, when I suddenly spotted a report stating that during the weekend just gone, dozens of birdwatchers from all over the country had descended upon the grounds of a closed-down local school - because, totally unexpectedly, a hoopoe had appeared there! The report even included a photo of the bird, which was unquestionably a hoopoe. Moreover, situated in the West Midlands town of Walsall, the derelict school in question, Beechdale Primary, was only a few miles from where I live! If only I’d known about this visitation earlier!
Nevertheless, as soon as I’d read it all, I cut the report out of the newspaper, stuffed it in the back pocket of my jeans for further reference if needed, grabbed my binoculars, jumped on my motorbike, and rode off straight away to the school, in the fervent hope that my elusive butterfly bird would still be there and show itself to me. Needless to say, of course, it did no such thing – after over an hour of training my binoculars on every blade of grass, bush, branch, and twig in the vicinity, I gave up in total despair. Clearly, to quote an old but very apt maxim, the bird had flown, and so I had no option but to ride back home, frustrated and thoroughly dejected - tormented yet again by this feathered phantom that I seemed destined never to see, not even when it was almost in my own back garden!
Instead, I would have to content myself with purchasing at an absolute bargain price a very large, attractive mirror depicting a gorgeous fantasy hoopoe that I happened to spot one morning in the window of a local charity shop; and also with continuing to uncover interesting if somewhat esoteric snippets of hoopoe folklore and legend from around the globe - because that at least appeared to be something related to this infuriating entity at which I was able to achieve a modicum of success.
Close-up of fantasy hoopoe in mirror (Dr Karl Shuker)
I discovered, for instance, that many cultures throughout its extensive Eurasian and African zoogeographical distribution range traditionally deem the hoopoe to be a guide or leader of other birds through dangerous realms to their ultimate destination, as well as a messenger from the invisible supernatural world (this latter role of the hoopoe also features in Aristophanes’s famous play, The Birds). To the ancient Egyptians, it symbolised gratitude, and even appeared as a hieroglyphic. There is also a widespread folk tradition that the hoopoe can forecast storms. Bearing in mind, however, that scientists have shown that it can indeed detect minute atmospheric electrical (piezoelectric) charges that sometimes precede a storm or even an earthquake, this particular example of hoopoe folklore is clearly based upon fact.
In addition, the hoopoe was viewed as a harbinger of war in Scandinavian legends, and associated in Estonian lore with death and the underworld. Acquiring a more positive role, conversely, in May 2008 it was chosen as the national bird of Israel, and is also the state bird of India’s Punjab province.
I was even able to solve a hoopoe-related mystery that had baffled me for many years. As a child, I was given as a gift a large and beautifully-illustrated book appropriately entitled The Colourful World of Birds, published in 1963 and written by acclaimed French ornithologist Jean Dorst. In a spread on extinct birds, a subject that had always interested me, Dorst briefly name-checked a species that had vanished during the 19th Century but which was totally unfamiliar to me – the ‘Bourbon Island hoopoe’. And despite my diligent perusing through numerous ornithological tomes during subsequent years, I never encountered any further mention by that name of this mysterious lost bird. Eventually, however, I discovered that ‘Bourbon Island’ was an old name for what is nowadays referred to as the island of Réunion, a neighbour of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean’s Mascarenes group. As for its hoopoe, this proved to be a mistranslation of ‘huppe’, the local name for a now-demised but very extraordinary species of starling.
Known scientifically as Fregilupus varius, the Réunion crested starling, its slender curved bill (more curved in females than in males) and distinctive but very unexpected crest (for a starling) bestowed upon it a surprising resemblance to a hoopoe, hence its local name. Indeed, when first described scientifically in 1783 by Dutch naturalist Pieter Boddaert, this aberrant starling was actually thought to be a species of hoopoe and so he christened it Upupa varia; only later was its true identity as a starling established and its generic name changed accordingly.
Stuffed specimen of the Réunion crested starling
I had always promised myself that one day, in spite of less than perfect health (I have been a Type 1 insulin-injecting diabetic for most of my life), I would go on safari. And so it was that in November 2008 I found myself staying at the private Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa’s Cape Province, not far from Port Elizabeth. During what remains the best holiday of my life to date, I was able to observe an unparalleled abundance of wildlife – everything from lions, cheetahs, warthogs, hippopotamuses, buffaloes, giraffes, baboons, rhinoceroses, zebras, ostriches, and a vast diversity of antelopes to such rarer, more elusive species as servals, brown hyaenas, springhaases, mongooses, caracals, stone curlews, nightjars, and even two different leopard specimens (many visitors don’t even manage to catch sight of one). But for me, the greatest highlight of all happened entirely without warning.
On the morning of 4 November, while walking through the reserve’s gardens towards the jeep to get aboard for the first game drive of the day, what looked like two gargantuan cerise butterflies flapped by overhead. Training my binoculars upon their undulating flight, I froze as if petrified by Medusa herself, for as they alighted upon a branch of the tree nearest to the jeep, their pied crests matching their eyecatching wings, I realised that what I had just seen was a pair of hoopoes!
There at last, before my unbelieving eyes, was my spellbinding, evanescent butterfly bird, and suddenly three long decades of disappointment simply melted away. Just for a moment, I was an 18-year-old youth again, but what had then been nothing more than the excitement of anticipation was now replaced by the thrill of fulfilment. Later on during that same South African holiday, I saw hoopoes again, and I even spied a close relative – an exquisite green wood hoopoe Phoeniculus purpureus, with slender coral-red bill, and richly garbed in gorgeous viridescent and metallic purplish-blue plumage.
Green wood hoopoe (Axel Bührmann/Wikipedia)
Yet nothing could surpass that first morning encounter, when at long last my eyes were blessed by the sight of what may not have been the sweet Bird of Youth but which was in many ways the sweet bird of my youth.