In 2008, the Eurasian hoopoe, or duchifat (דוכיפת) in Hebrew, was chosen as Israel’s National Bird. This distinctive bird is also found in the mythologies of Egypt, Greece, Arabia, Persia, and other ancient cultures.

I've been fortunate to visit Israel twice. To this day, I've never forgotten the sounds of sunrise by the Sea of Galilee. The chorus of birds was astonishing. I took along a small tape recorder to capture the sounds of the country and highly recommend that to anyone planning a visit.

The city of Jerusalem itself is home to over 300 bird species. Experts estimate that during the migration season as many as 500 million birds pass through Israel. For some species, almost the entire global population moves through this region.

Sea of Galilee

(Photos taken on the Sea of Galilee, are mine)

Sea of Galilee

A Hoopoe Provokes the Wrath of a King

“I will punish him most severely,” bellows an infuriated King Solomon about a hoopoe in Chapter 27 of the Qu’ran (Koran),“or will kill him, unless he brings me a convincing excuse!”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this legend, the hoopoe has enjoyed a rather lofty status throughout history. Not only was a hoopoe Solomon’s special messenger according to the Qu’ran but was also called the wisest bird in the world by the Persian poet Attar of Nishapur in his epic poem, The Conference of the Birds.

Ancient painting
(Above: The Conference of the Birds, miniature from a manuscript of the Mantiq al-Tayr (The Language of the Birds) of Farid al-Din Attar, ca. 1600, Safavid, Iran)

Israel Makes Eurasian Hoopoe the National Bird

The Eurasian hoopoe (Upupa epops) is the most widespread species of the genus Upupa. It's native to Europe, Asia, the northern half of Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Madagasar. Israel is a main crossroads for birds migrating between Europe and Africa.

A Distinctive Species

Along with a crown of feathers, the bird's long, thin, tapering black bill with light yellowish-tan base makes the species highly distinctive. A strengthened musculature of the head allows the bill to be opened when probing the soil. The hoopoe has broad, rounded wings capable of strong flight. Due to the wings half closing at the end of each beat or short sequence of beats, hoopoes have a characteristic undulating flight like a giant butterfly.

The call is typically a three-syllable oop-oop-oop, which may have given rise to the name. Another explanation is a derivation of the French name for the bird, huppée, which means crested.

migrating cranes

(Above: Located at the junction of three continents, Israel is crossed by migrating birds on a scale unparalleled anywhere. Around 500 million birds cross Israel's narrow airspace twice every year during their migrations. Photo: מינוזיג [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)])

Habitat

The Eurasian hoopoe's range is widespread across Europe, Asia, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar. As early as the 18th Century, it was recorded in Britain.

Most European and northern Asian hoopoes migrate to the tropics in winter. By contrast, the African populations of this bird are sedentary all year. The species has been a vagrant in Alaska where it was recorded in the Yukon Delta in 1975.

Hoopoes have been known to breed north of their European range and in southern England during warm, dry summers that provide plenty of grasshoppers and similar insects. As early as the 1980s, Northern European populations were reported to be in decline, possibly due to climate changes.

hoopoe with crest raised

How They Behave

The hoopoe has two basic habitat requirements: bare or sparsely vegetated ground where it can forage and vertical surfaces with cavities for nesting. These requirements are found in a wide range of ecosystems. As a result, hoopoes inhabit a variety of habitats including grasslands, heath, wooded steppes, savannas, forests, and glades.

In some regions, they move seasonally in response to rain. Hoopoes have been seen at high altitudes during migration across the Himalayas. One was recorded at about 21,000 ft. by the first Mount Everest expedition in 1953.

In what was long thought to be a defensive posture, the birds sunbathe by spreading out their wings and tails low against the ground while tilting their heads up. They also enjoy dust and sand baths.

Sunbathing hoopoe

What Does a Hoopoe Eat?

The bird is a solitary forager that eats mostly insects, small reptiles, frogs, plant matter, seeds, and berries. Its common foraging style is to stride over relatively open ground and periodically pause to probe the ground with its entire bill.

Hoopoes will also feed on surface insects, probe piles of leaves, and even use the bill as a lever to move large stones and flake off tree bark. Their common diet includes crickets, locusts, beetles, earwigs, cicadas, bugs, and ants. Larger prey is beaten against the ground or a rock to kill it and remove any indigestible body parts.

The Eurasian hoopoe's diet includes many pest species such as the pupae of the Oak processionary moth, a damaging forest pest. For this reason, the species is afforded protection under the law in many countries.

clutch of hoopoe eggs

Nesting Habits

The genus is monogamous, although the pair bond apparently only lasts for a single season. They are territorial. The male calls frequently to advertise his ownership of the territory. Chases and fights between rival males and females are common and sometimes brutal. Birds will try to stab rivals with their bills, resulting in occasional blinding.

The nest is in a hole in a tree or wall. The female alone is responsible for incubating the eggs. Clutch size varies with location. Northern Hemisphere birds lay more eggs than those in the Southern Hemisphere, and birds at higher latitudes have larger clutches than those closer to the Equator. In central and northern Europe and Asia, clutch size is around twelve; it's around four in the tropics and seven in the subtropics. The eggs are pale blue to milky white when laid but quickly discolor in the increasingly dirty nest.

Stinking to Survive

Hoopoes employ well-developed anti-predator defenses in the nest. The uropygial gland of the incubating and brooding female along with her nestlings is quickly modified to produce a foul-smelling liquid that discolors the eggs. These secretions smell like rotting meat. They're rubbed into the plumage to help deter predators and parasites and possibly act as an antibacterial agent. The secretions stop just before the young birds leave the nest. From the age of six days, nestlings can also direct streams of feces at intruders and will hiss at them and strike with their bill or wing.

hoopoe in grass

Cultural Impact

These distinctive birds have made a cultural impact over much of their range. Considered sacred in Ancient Egypt, they were depicted on the walls of tombs and temples.

Egyptian wall painting

(Above: Birds in an acacia tree, Egyptian wall painting, ca. 1991–1802 BC, from tomb of Khnumhotep III, Beni Hasan Cemetery, Egypt)

Hoopoes were thought of as thieves across much of Europe and as harbingers of war in Scandinavia. In Estonian tradition, they are strongly connected with death and the underworld. Their song is believed to foreshadow the death of people or livestock.The hoopoe appears on the logo of the University of Johannesburg and is the official mascot of its sports teams. The municipalities of Armstedt and Brechten, Germany, display a hoopoe in their coat of arms.

The Eurasian hoopoe is the type of bird that looks like it should be rare, but isn't. An interesting and popular bird with a big reputation, it wears its crown well.

the author at the Wailing Wall

(Above: the author at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem)
(Credits: https://www.audubon.org/news/the-hoopoe-emissary-kings-secreter-stink; photos: thumbnail-Artemy Voikhansky [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]; hoopoe sunbathing-Tamsin Carlisle [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]; hoopoe eggs-Muséum de Toulouse [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]; hoopoe in tree-Charles J Sharp [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]; hoopoe in grass-MathKnight and Dr. Zachi Evenor [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0])