This unmistakable medium-sized, pink bodied bird is one of the most exotic species to occur in Europe. In flight the broad, rounded wings are boldly striped black and white, making it even more obvious than when perched or, as often, walking on the ground. The flamboyant, erectile crest is normally closed and held flat across the crown. It is used mainly for display, in combination with tail-fanning, but is often opened in response to a threat and when landing.

The name is onomatopoeic, although the mellow ‘oo-poo-poo’ call is usually of three, sometimes four, notes. Hoopoes are common throughout Iberia with the largest population in Portugal south of the Tagus. These warmer regions also host most of the wintering birds but it is unclear whether these are local residents, birds which have moved south from Continental Europe or a mix of the two. Many migrate to sub-Saharan Africa, where there is also a smaller resident race, returning north between February and April. The range of the species extends right across the warm temperate and tropical regions of the ‘Old World’ but it is absent from Australasia.

Hoopoes are carnivorous, feeding almost entirely on large insects, such as crickets and grasshoppers, the larvae and pupae of moths and butterflies and larger prey such as frogs and lizards. The powerful, curved bill is used both for stabbing and digging out grubs and worms. At most times of the year they are seen singly or in pairs but family parties remain together for a while in summer. Larger parties can congregate at migration times or at particularly rich food sources. I once had thirteen on my well-watered lawn in Pakistan.

Holes in trees are the Hoopoes’ favourite nest sites but they will use cavities in buildings and burrows in banks. Pairs raise between three and five young in a single brood.

The Portuguese population seems to be stable but further north loss of habitat and the consequent reduction in the number of large insects has resulted in declines. Global warming should result in some northward expansion but there are still very few breeding records from the British Isles, where it remains an uncommon migrant. In my youth, I saw one in Windsor Great Park, right next to the polo field where the Duke of Edinburgh was playing. Knowing of his interest in birds, I considered leaving a message with his equerry but my courage failed me!

Alan Vittery