The hoopoe is twice-blessed, fortunate in both its English name (hoopoe) and its Latin one: upupa epops. Sometimes people call it the common hoopoe, but there is nothing common about this bird. Here’s a bunch of them striking various poses:
What I like about the hoopoe is the way it seems to have used other species for inspiration when styling itself: there are shades of the zebra in its black and white barred wings; of the anteater’s long, curved tongue in its beak; of the lion in its mane-like crest. I would describe the hoopoe’s body as orange or possibly fawn, but my ancient Observer’s Book of Birds calls it cinnamon pink, which sounds much better.
The bird’s name in both English and Latin derives from its oop-oop call:
Note the way it bobs its head down when it calls (00.15), as if making the sound by jabbing its beak against the key of a musical instrument.
Hoopoes live in the hot bits of Africa, Asia and Europe. The ones in Europe migrate to the tropics for the winter, where they can do what they like best: sunbathe. A hoopoe sunbathes by tipping its head back so its crest touches its back and spreading its wings in what looks like some kind of yoga pose:
It particularly likes to do this in the dust.
When the hoopoe is not pointing its beak at the sun, it uses it to dig around in the earth for insects. It has such strong head muscles that it can open its beak after it has stabbed it into the hard ground. Like this guy:
The combination of feathered crown and sharp beak has not always served the hoopoe well. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is full of gruesome stories, but possibly the most gruesome is the one in which King Tereus of Thrace rapes his wife’s sister and cuts out her tongue. Unable to speak, she weaves a tapestry showing her sister the queen what has happened. In revenge, the queen cuts off her son’s head and feeds his body to Tereus in a stew. She then flings the head at him.
Tereus chases after the sisters with a sword, intending to kill them both. The women run so fast they seem almost to be flying – and then they really are flying, for the gods have turned them into birds to help their escape. Tereus, ‘through grief, and haste to be reveng’d’, also becomes a bird: the hoopoe. The bird’s crown symbolizes his royalty, its beak his cruelty:
Fix’d on his head, the crested plumes appear,
Long is his beak, and sharpen’d like a spear;
Thus arm’d, his looks his inward mind display.
The Tereus myth caused confusion for centuries. Long-ago English translators were unfamiliar with the hoopoe, which rarely makes it to the UK, so they assumed that ‘epops’ was the Latin for ‘lapwing’, another bird with crested plumes. If you compare the two, though, you will find there is no doubt which has the beak sharpened like a spear.
Others put a more positive spin on the hoopoe’s regal bearing. In the 12th-century epic The Conference of the Birds, the hoopoe is the wisest bird of all. Both the Qur’an and Jewish folklore associate the hoopoe with King Solomon, the wisest of all kings. On one occasion a flock saves his life by spreading their wings over him in an enormous canopy, protecting him from the sun. On another, a hoopoe introduces Solomon to the Queen of Sheba.
The hoopoe is high on the list of birds I would like to see. When I was in Italy last summer with my mother we tried to lure one to us by imitating its call, but it did not work. I console myself by drinking coffee from my hoopoe mug. It is not the same.