Bird of the Month by Doreen McColaugh

The Hamerkop is the mystery bird of many legends and strange beliefs. The English name Hamerkop comes directly from Afrikaans, meaning hammerhead. The large head with its thick, long, backward pointing crest and its long bill is said to resemble a hammer. This bird has many names referring to a hammer or an anvil or to its overall brown colour. Its scientific name Scopus umbretta also refers to its overall rather drab brown coloured plumage. The Hamerkop is unique in that it is the only living member of its family Scopidae and its genus Scopus. It has no known living relatives. Traditionally it has been grouped with Herons and Storks and related waterbirds but now is thought to be closer to Pelicans and the Shoebill. This waterbird is known for living longer than most waders – up to 20 years once reaching adulthood. However, getting to adulthood is for the few and not the many as there are many predators of the eggs and young with half of the eggs eaten and almost half of the chicks preyed upon before they fledge. However, Hamerkops still have healthy populations and are not endangered and they are possibly protected by people who live near their habitat areas because they treat them with awe and respect.  

A medium sized wader, the Hamerkop has large, rounded wings (It is a strong flyer that can fly to heights that allow it to soar.) but only averages 56 cm in length and weighs about 470 g. Its neck and legs are proportionally shorter than those of other waders. Interestingly, their feet are partially webbed though they do not swim like ducks. They are found in all types of wetlands in sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar and southwest areas of Arabia at rivers, marshes, lakes, dams, canals, seasonal ponds and pans and even in irrigated rice paddies. They also are quick to inhabit a newly built dam or other water feature though once established in an area they might move around at different times of the year if water becomes scarce but they do not migrate. In the wetlands they use they principally feed on amphibians, but also eat fish, crabs, shrimp, insects and even rodents. They usually seek food in shallow water where they shuffle along disturbing prey that they easily catch but they can often have their food stolen from them by Fish Eagles or other birds of prey. They have been recorded flying over water and diving to catch fish as well as riding on hippos, using them as a fishing perch. On land they sometimes act like Cattle Egrets and follow cattle or buffalo to feed on the insects those animals disturb when walking along.   

Hamerkops are obsessive nest builders and what a nest they can build! A circular base of at least a metre, and often more in diameter is prepared of sticks and then more sticks and clumps of grass, all plastered with mud are used to build the walls up to a metre  or a metre and a half high, then a domed roof is constructed on top.  A small, down facing entrance hole leads to a tunnel that opens up into the large nesting/living chamber that is large enough for the parents and the chicks with some extra space. The base is also plastered with mud and there is a grass lined depressed area where the 4 – 5 eggs are laid. The dome is “decorated” with a variety of colourful human rubbish materials of cloth, plastic and other found items such as colourful feathers that the Hamerkops incorporate. Nigel Dennis and Warwick Tarboton, on page 73 in Waterbirds: Birds of Southern Africa’s Wetlands report on a “decorated” nest in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe that I think is too amazing not to be shared.  The top (dome) of the nest was covered with the following: “…one pan brush, one broken cassette tape, one glove, one plastic dish, one plastic cup, two peacock feathers, chicken feathers, two socks, rabbit fur, 45 rags, four mealie cobs, one piece of glass, four bits of wire, one plastic comb, one pair of male underpants, one typewriter ribbon, one piece of leather belt, four stockings, two pieces of tin, two pieces of foam rubber, seven pieces of hose pipe, nine pieces of electrical pipe, six pieces of asbestos roofing, 11 bones, 12 pieces of sandpaper, four pieces of insulation tape, 10 plastic bags, nine pieces of paper, 56 scraps of tinfoil, six bicycle tires and six lengths of insulating wire!”  Strong enough for an adult person to stand on, the whole nest can weigh from 50 kg to much more, depending if it is built in the fork of a tree or on rock ledges (as were many above the vlei in the rhino enclosure at Gaborone Game Reserve) or a cliff face or even on buildings. For those that look carefully at nests and their construction some have counted 8,000 to 10,000 sticks used in building one nest.  Hamerkops are monogamous and the dedicated pair will take 4 – 6 weeks of constant daily work to complete a nest – but they might not even use it!  Sometimes it can be taken over by Barn Owls or Egyptian Geese, Eagle Owls, snakes, monitor lizards, genets or bees before it is finished or soon after. Sometimes the Hamerkops don’t even use the nest they have built even though it has no unwanted “guests”. They just go ahead and build another nest or two or more during the season before they get serious about settling in one to raise a family. Mating usually takes place near a nest they are building at any time of the year but August and September seems to be preferred in Botswana. The 4 – 5 eggs that are laid in the nest are incubated by both the male and the female during the 30 day period. They both then attend and feed the chicks for another 45 – 50 days. Once fledged the young may stay in the area near the nest for some days and roost in it at night before they then disperse.

Another odd practice that Hamerkops indulge in that may lead to some of the superstitions about these birds is what some call a strange courtship ritual of false mountings where they mount or stand on top of another, without copulating, while making strange, loud calls.  Others say this might be a social custom as it is not always just the monogamous pair standing on each other’s back, as when there is a group it may be different birds in the group standing on each other’s’ backs with both males and females taking part with all in the group. These “loud parties” were a common occurrence at our house compound in Nairobi, Kenya that was next to a small river that was frequented by many Hamerkops – and yes, they can make a lot of weird noises.  Pete Hancock in page 54 of Birds of Botswana says “This bird is the subject of the Setswana proverb Bopelonomi bo bolayile mmamasiloanoka (“Kindness killed the Hamerkop”), a reference to the fact that after it works so hard to build its large nest, other birds (such as Western Barn Owl, Egyptian Goose, or Verreaux”s Eagle-Owl) then appropriate it.”  Kalahari Bushmen call the Hamerkop the Lightning Bird.  There is a belief that anyone who tries to rob a Hamerkop nest will be hit by lightning. There is also a belief that if a Hamerkop flies over their encampment that it is a message that someone close to people there, had died. In Madagascar there is a belief that anyone who destroys a Hamerkop nest will get leprosy. Some there consider the Hamerkop to be an “evil bird”.  These, among many other examples of beliefs and legends about this bird have probably given it a measure of protection. We should hope protection continues for this fascinating bird.

References consulted:

Burton, Robert. 1985. Bird Behaviour. Granada Publishing: London, England.

Dennis, Nigel and Warwick Tarboton. 1993.  Waterbirds: Birds of Southern Africa’s Wetlands. Struik Publishers: Cape Town.

Ginn, P.J., W.G. McIlleron and P. le S. Milstein. 1989. The Complete Book of Southern African Birds. Struik Publishing: Capetown.

Hancock, Peter and Ingrid Weiersbye. 2016. Birds of Botswana. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey.

Liversidge, Richard. 1991. The Birds Around Us. Fontein Publishing Company: Parklands, South Africa

Tarboton, Warwick. 2001. Nests and Eggs of Southern African Birds.  Struik Publishers: Cape Town.

Hamerkop Bird of many legends https://www.aboutanimals.com/bird/hamerkop/ (Accessed 6/3/2019)

Hamerkop – SANBI https://www.Sanbi.org/animal-of-the-week/hamerkop/ (Accessed 6/6/2019)

WIKIPEDIA Hamerkop https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamerkop (Accessed 6/1/2019)