Sunday Species Spotlight: Hamerkop

Updated: Oct 30, 2019

Every week we will be highlighting and exploring a new species. Birds from exotic places, birds with unique traits, incredible rarities, and some species that can be found in your backyard!

Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta)

This week's bird, the Hamerkop, is unique in both looks and traits. Their name translates to "hammerhead" from the Afrikaans words "hamer" (hammer) and "kop" (head). They stand around 22" tall and have a roughly 3' wingspan. Body plumage is a dusty brown with a slight purple iridescence on their backs, the tail is lightly barred with slightly darker brown coloring, and the bill is solid black. Male and female birds are not distinguishable by their plumage. Proportionally these birds have shorter necks than most aquatic birds, and an overall short build. Their feet are partially webbed, with the middle toe being comb-like (also known as pectinated) that is used for grooming.

They have a large range in Africa, and can also be found in Madagascar, and along the coast in south-west Arabia. Wetlands are their ideal habitat, as forage and hunt in shallow waters. Most birds stay within their territories with their mate, but some have been observed migrating during the wet season. Hamerkop are quite tolerant of humans, and have been seen breeding and feeding in man-made villages, rice paddies, and dams.

While Hamerkop appear closely related to Ciconiiformes (Herons, Egrets, Ibises, Storks, and Spoonbills), they are suspected to be closer in relation to Pelicans and the Shoebill. Though these birds belong to their own family, Scopidae, in which they are the only living species.

There are two subspecies of Hamerkop, S. u. umbretta, and S. u. minor. S. u. umbretta is typically found in the wetlands of Africa, Madagascar and South-western Arabia, while S. u. minor is slightly smaller in size with darker plumage, and is seen along the coast from Sierra Leone to eastern Nigeria

Hamerkop primarily feed on amphibians and fish in the shallow waters, but will also eat shrimp, small rodents, and insects. They normally hunt alone or with a mate, but have been observed feeding in groups. Birds will walk slowly through water and will shuffle a foot to stir up prey. If the water is muddy, they will probe their beaks through the mud in search of food. They will also feed while in flight by flying low above the water and picking out prey from above.

When in groups Hamerkop are more vocal and communicative, but are nearly silent when solitary. Their calls consist of cackles, nasally rattles, and highly social "yip-purr" notes. Socialization is also practiced through "false mounting" where one bird will stand on top of another flock member, but will not copulate. This has been observed with mated pairs, same sex pairs, and females "mounting" males. Birds also engage in group preening as a social activity.

Nesting behavior is one of the most unique qualities of the Hamerkop. Their nests are constructed with sticks and mud and are massive in size (usually 4-5' across) with a domed roof and mud-caked entrance. Inside is a small tunnel that leads to the nesting chamber. The outside is decorated with shiny or colorful objects found nearby. Nests can take as long as 2-3 months to build, and a mated pair will build multiple nests each year, even if not breeding. It is possible that this is another bonding exercise between the pair. The average clutch is 3-7 eggs, white in color. Both the male and female will incubate the egg, and both will also feed the young after hatching.

In some cultures, the Hamerkop is a bird of great mystery and legend. Some say that when one of these birds flies over your camp and calls out, someone close to you has passed away. Kalahari Bushmen called them "lightning birds" and believed that anyone that robbed a Hamerkop's nest would be struck by lightning. The Malagasy thought that those who destroyed a nest would get leprosy.

The Hamerkop is a bird with great mystery and legend surrounding it and is incredibly fascinating and beautiful. It quickly made the shortlist of top birds I want to see! While it is not a flashy, colorful bird it is definitely deserving of the spotlight.

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