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Getting to know the Hamerkop

~ Zambezi Cruise and Safaris

Anyone seeing or hearing the name “Hamerkop”, or even its scientific Latin one of “Scopus umbretta”, could be forgiven for failing to associate it with a quite striking bird from within the group known as “Waders”. Even translating it from the Afrikaans to English, when it becomes “Hammerhead”, gives no clue as to what it might refer to. Childish playground insults, or even sharks, spring to mind but there are often no noisy children or open sea where the species occurs. When confronted by the actual subject, however, all becomes clear. It is indeed a wading bird, dark brown in colour with a meaningful looking long black beak. This, together with a strange backward pointing crest is remarkably reminiscent of the head of a hammer.. It is normally seen in singles or pairs but does, in fact, often form small flocks outside the breeding season.

It enjoys a wide distribution in sub-Saharan Africa including Madagascar, with a recognized West African sub-species, slightly smaller than the nominate race, and rumour of more being considered. It is officially listed as of “least concern”.

It tends to crepuscular in nature ie most active at dawn and dusk, and sedentary as opposed to migratory. It is territorial to a degree, though not as strongly so as some species. It’s nest is huge for the size of the bird, being up to 4 or 5 feet across with access via a tunnel from the bottom. These nests are often built over water around a fork of a tree and can take up to 3 months to build. One peculiar behavioural trait is that a pair may build several nests a year with most of them never being used for their own breeding. There is a suggestion in some literature, that makes eminent sense to me, that this continuous nest building helps establish and maintain a strong pair bond. Abandoned nests are often taken over by a wide range of other wildlife such as Owls, snakes, small mammals or other small bird species that build either into or onto the sides of the nest.

Actual breeding for the species can occur at any time of year but with an emphasis on the period just prior to the rains. Anything up to half a dozen eggs are laid. Due to the solid nature of the nest I have never seen a nestling but if you Google “Hamerkop nestling seven days old” it will take you through to a number of images one of which is from the “Internet Bird Collection” website and shows a 7 day old nestling in a cupped hand. At this age it has not developed a crest and looked to me almost a dead ringer for Black Browed Albatross chicks which I have photographed in the Falkland Islands. Were I you, I should resist the impulse to invade, or try to look in a nest, even carefully and with parents absent, in the wild should you find one as the Bushmen call this the Lightning Bird as you will supposedly die in a Lightning strike if you rob a Hamerkop’s nest!! I would add here that for anyone who wantonly disturbs Wildlife Nest sites or breeding areas then I’m on the side of the Lightning.

If startled or disturbed it will fly off remarkably quietly for such a wingspan though often in only short hops of a few hundred yards so mark the spot well and re-approach carefully.

It feeds opportunistically on a mix of fish, insects, amphibians, reptiles, shrimps and rodents. A firm favourite, though only available occasionally, are termites, and the bird in the accompanying photos was actually rushing around feeding on them at the time. I have always wondered if newly emerged flying termites contain some addictive drug as many bird, animal and reptile species that are normally shy and difficult to approach become seemingly oblivious to human presence when feeding on them.

I suspect that if you were a Hamerkop seeking a prospective mate then there is every chance that headsize and shape (it must look like that for a reason) would play an important part in making your amorous and pairing off decisions. This means that maintaining those features in good order could occupy a major role in your day’s activities. Many bird species, especially Parrots and Owls, can twist their necks and get their beaks to almost any part of their plumage so that grooming is not a problem. If, however, you are designed like a Hamerkop, and many other longbeaked species, how do you get to groom those parts your long beak cannot reach? Nature’s answer, and she’s good at coming up with one, is to give the species what is known as a pectinate toe (look it up on Google). In effect this kind of toe tends to be a bit longer than the others and has a comblike end to it thus enabling the bird to maintain its coiffure in pristine condition. If you watch one of these birds for a period of time you will see it often on one leg scratching away at its crest for all it’s worth.

On slow flowing rivers such as the Serui at Pamuzinda, and the Chimbo at Chengeta, where there are a number of these birds, they seem to prefer pool areas where they will sit for hours, Heronlike, waiting for some choice morsel to inadvertently wriggle its toes or swim by. The best way to see them is to walk quietly along the banks and, if you can, study each pool through binoculars as you approach, so you can avoid alarming the birds. Due no doubt to their body colour they are in the habit of sitting against a muddy background or on dark, earthy coloured rocks where they are well camouflaged so search these areas carefully. I have read that in some places they are very approachable and used to human presence but I have to say that I have never had the good fortune to find them so, and a fairly cautious approach is the order of the day.

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