The hoopoe

David Chapman / 12 March 2012

The hoopoe is an unusual bird that doesn’t breed in Britain, but each spring a small number visit. It is rare to see them but because the hoopoe likes short grassy areas it is sometimes spotted in gardens.

The hoopoe is one of those birds that isn’t easy to forget, some people refer to it as the butterfly bird because of the broad wings and buoyant, undulating flight.  The plumage of the hoopoe is quite beautiful with a buff coloured upper body and black and white wings but probably the most striking feature is the crest, which can be raised into a half circle above its head when aroused.

What does the hoopoe eat?

The hoopoe eats worms, larvae and insects. The beak of the hoopoe is long and slightly down-curved, almost like a wading bird. It uses this bill to probe into the ground to find food. For this reason, hoopoes tend to feed on short grassy areas and bird watchers sometimes joke about hoopoes having an affinity with vicar's lawns!

This notion is based upon the fact that vicars keep their lawns quite tightly mown and I remember someone in Cornwall once telling me that they had seen a hoopoe on a bowling green, providing further proof of the link between hoopoes and very short grass.

Why are hoopoes seen in Britain?

Hoopoes are migratory birds, flying south to spend their winter in southern Spain or Africa. When they fly northwards to return to their breeding grounds in spring some fly too far, particularly if weather conditions are favourable, and find themselves in Britain, most often along the south coast.

For more unusual birds you might be lucky enough to spot, read our guide to the exotic birds of Britain.

Where does the hoopoe breed?

The breeding range of the hoopoe is across most of mainland Europe with the exception of Britain and Scandinavia. It has attempted to breed in Britain on at least forty recorded occasions, most recently in the 1990s, but it is seen here every year as a migrant in spring. Where it breeds the hoopoe shows a preference for land which is grazed because around domesticated animals there is a greater abundance of prey available.

Why is it called 'hoopoe'?

The name of the hoopoe, pronounced 'hoo-poo', is derived from the bird’s call frequently described as ‘oop-oop-oop’.  So remarkable is this call that it is also reflected in the scientific name of the species, Upupa epops.

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