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Identify and index birds in Southern Africa

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Unread postby francoisd » Thu Feb 23, 2006 4:14 pm

Hamerkop Scopus umbretta

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Bill Thompson a native of Southeastern Ohio USA said the following on his blog after his first birding trip to South Africa: “While there I encountered many unusual and amazing creatures, especially birds. My nominee for "weirdest bird of the trip" goes to the hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) a hammer-headed bird that's most closely related to flamingos, spoonbills, and storks.”

When you look at a Hamerkop you cannot help to agree with Bill, strange bird indeed. The name Hamerkop is actually a combination of two Afrikaans word Hamer and Kop whichin English is Hamer and Head. Descriptive of the shape of the bird’s head.

The Hamerkop is a distinctive bird which is in a Family (Scopidae) all on its own. It has variously been grouped with herons, storks and the shoebill. However recent thinking links it to waders and shorebirds.

Most of Africa and Madagascar, south of the Sahara, . Most common in well-watered woodland and savanna. Less common in forest. Only seasonal in semi-arid regions.

20 inches.


A huge, enclosed, domed mass of sticks layed in-between tree branches with a small opening on side. Dead trees standng in water are preferred. Apparent social courtship displays common near nest.
Notes: The hamerkop is recognized by the hammer-shaped appearance of its head and beak. it feeds in shallow water on amphibians, fish, and other aquatic creatures, often washing catch before swallowing. Normally occurs in pairs, but sometimes groups of up to 50. Groups of 8 to 10 are common.

Its enigmatic taxonomy matches its behaviour, particularly when it comes to nest building. Hamerkop nests are massive, they average 1.5m in depth and are almost as wide, the structure takes 3 to 6 weeks to complete having been worked on by both members of the pair. They are not just massive they are also structurally solid, a completed nest can support the weight of a man. As if that isn't enough, they don't just build one of these, they may build half a dozen in their territory ... and then they will only use one of them (and that will only be just the once). Why they do this is still a mystery but it's a real boon to other birds. Verreaux's Eagle-Owls frequently take over Hamerkop nests once the birds have built the initial solid platform and after the Hamerkops have finished with them Barn Owls, Egyptian Geese and Comb Ducks are among a long list of species that take advantage of them. Even when the Hamerkops are in residence sparrows and other small birds often choose to nest in them. And it's not just other birds that benefit, snakes, genets and monitor lizards will all use them for sleeping in.

The Hamerkop is also not free from superstitious believes. It adapts rather well to the presence of man, and it is revered by many local tribes. It has been claimed that is the origin of more legends and superstitions than any other bird. It is considered "magical" because of its large, impregnable, inaccessible and therefore mysterious nest (Elliott 1992). Often claimed to be nocturnal, it is actually active only during the day. But, like many African birds, it feeds in the cool of the dawn and dusk, and roosts calmly during the heat of the day.

Some of the superstitions I could find are:

1. There is a superstition among some indigenous tribes that when these birds fly over your hut, you must demolish the hut immediately.

2. In Zulu and Khoikhoi cultures, hamerkops are sinister creatures that bring tidings of death and disaster to anyone who dreams of them or sees one flying over a house. In local legend they are also tied to witchcraft, and are said to embody vanity and futility

3. It is said that amongst the Hottentot, the hamerkop bird was held in great respect as a bearer of the tidings of death. Indeed, almost anybody seeing this strange bird at dusk, flitting about with weird activity along the edge of a marsh or pool while uttering its queer cry, would feel a prickling of the skin! When two or three are feeding in a small pool they will sometimes execute a singular dance, skipping around one another, opening and closing their wings and performing strange antics, reminiscent of the three weird witch sisters from Macbeth.
The Hottentots believed that in the same way they can see their reflections mirrored in still water, a hammerkop bird can see reflections of the future, and knows who is shortly going to die. When the bird sees the image of a person with death overshadowing him, it will fly to the home of the doomed, and utter its three warning cries. The hamerkop will watch for the falling star which prophesies death, as it falls above the area of the dwelling in which someone is about to die. When it sees this star, it will fly over the abode venting its mournful cries.

When the Hottentots saw the hamerkop standing in water stirring the mud with its feet and peering into the swirling water for fish, they said: 'See, the hamerkop is looking at our reflections to see who will be the next to die!' You may be sure they did not stay long to find out!
Last edited by francoisd on Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:45 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Unread postby Shidzidzii » Fri Feb 24, 2006 7:38 am

Yes Hamerkop's are rewarding photo subjects - they stand still for long enough . Thanks for the other info Francois .

If ever you visit Lake Malawi (or the other great lakes too)
you will see them in abundance and on many of the islands Fish Eagles are as common as weavers.

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Unread postby wildtuinman » Mon Jun 12, 2006 8:09 am

Breeding pair on Biyamithi private road...
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Unread postby Kwando » Wed Jun 28, 2006 8:06 am

I took this pic in the beginning of June 2006. it was amasing to get so close to these birds, they were about 3 meters away from us, right next to the road around Skukuza area (a bit west of skukuza, travelling north).

These birds are really something!!! :)

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Unread postby Bush Baptist » Fri Jul 07, 2006 4:32 pm

These intersting birds often stand motionless at shallow water road crossings and don't move as you drive slowly by. I suppose they are concentrating on their potential catch.
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Unread postby leopardspotter » Sat Jul 08, 2006 3:22 pm

My friend had an interesting sighting of these birds during there trip to Kruger..., they saw one Hamerkop standing on the other ones back :shock:

Does anybody what they were doing?

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Unread postby Jose » Sat Jul 08, 2006 4:18 pm


This rather bizarre behaviour witnessed by your friend is in the case of Hamerkops referred to as "towering" (although I'm not sure that that is the official term for it. It's also more commonly known as "false mounting" (no mating takes place). The reason for this behaviour is unrecorded.

Sasol e-guide wrote:This species sometime shows unusual behaviour where a number of birds will suddenly form a tower - sometimes of up to five birds high. Birds perch on the back of the bird below - each calling loudly and excitedly for a while and then seem to simply go off in different directions to continue their hunting.

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Unread postby cybeR@NGER » Sat Jul 08, 2006 7:16 pm

Jose, you're quite right. Roberts VII calls this most characteristic and bizarre ritual of these birds, false mounting.
One bird jumps onto the back of another as if intended to copulate and just stands there, beating wings and calling. In groups of 6 birds, 2 birds simultaneously reverse mounting, and in groups of 4 birds, 3 birds alternately mount each other, sometimes with a third bird atop the pair. :shock:

Edit* Here's a beautiful photo (taken by Avon Vosloo's friend, Michiel) of a Hamerkop mounting another: Public Sightings
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Unread postby leopardspotter » Sun Jul 09, 2006 4:37 pm

A pic taken from the low-level bridge at Shingwedzi

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Unread postby gwendolen » Wed Sep 06, 2006 4:49 pm

One of my favourite pictures taken on our last trip. A baby hamerkop.


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Unread postby Elsa » Wed Sep 06, 2006 5:57 pm

That is just too cute for words Gwen. :D
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Unread postby Katja » Thu Oct 26, 2006 7:51 pm

On the S52
KTP: November 2014
KNP: March 2015

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Unread postby Muhammad » Thu Oct 26, 2006 8:35 pm

too busy having a snack.did not want to pose.pic taken on S30


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Unread postby DinkyBird » Mon Oct 30, 2006 8:38 pm

My SO, Hawk, took this pic at Balule - Sept 2006

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Unread postby wilmaw » Thu Nov 02, 2006 3:03 pm

I can't remember where I saw this hamerkop, but enjoyed watching it groom itself!

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