African Hoopoe (Upupa africana)

Cover image: African Hoopoe by Lia Steen – Shellybeach, KwaZulu-Natal – BirdPix No.276954

Identification

The charismatic African Hoopoe is distinctive and unlike any other southern African bird species. It is conspicuous and readily identifiable. The combination of its long, decurved bill, elongate black-tipped crest and black, white and cinnamon plumage render the African Hoopoe unmistakable.

African Hoopoe
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana) male.
Middelburg district, Eastern Cape
Photo by Tino Herselman

The crest is fan-shaped when fully erect but is usually held flat, projecting in a long point from the back of the crown. The cinnamon coloured crest feathers are of different lengths and have broad black tips, showing as black bars when the crown is flattened.

The sexes are distinguishable in flight with females showing three conspicuous white bars across the secondaries, whilst in males the two lower bars are fused to form a large white panel. Females are also duller overall with a greyish wash on the face and breast.

Upupa africana
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana) female
Keimoes, Northern Cape
Photo by Andries de Vries

Most of the body, including the head, neck and mantle, breast and belly are rich cinnamon. The lower belly is paler with a few long, dark streaks. The rump and lower back are white with a single broad black bar. The tail is glossy black on both the upper and underside while the under tail coverts are white. The folded wings are dull black with a series of white and cream-buff bars.

Immature and juvenile birds resemble adult females, but are slightly duller. They also have pale buff bellies and cream coloured wing bands. Juveniles also have a shorter crest and bill.

Upupa africana
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana)
Shellybeach, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Lia Steen

Status and Distribution

The African Hoopoe is fairly common throughout southern Africa. It is resident in some parts of its range, but nomadic to migratory in others. It is widely distributed in sub-Saharan Africa and also across Madagascar. Occurs throughout southern Africa, absent only from deserts and the most arid parts of the Karoo. The gaps in distribution in Lesotho and the former Transkei (Eastern Cape) are probably due to habitat loss through human impact.

SABAP2 distribution map for African Hoopoe
SABAP2 distribution map for African Hoopoe (Upupa africana) – May 2024. Details for map interpretation can be found here.

In general, the African Hoopoe appears to have benefited from human activities and has extended its range and abundance in a number of areas. It is not considered threatened.

Habitat

It is essentially a woodland bird and is found in all natural and secondary types of woodland, provided they are not too dense, too wet or too dry. It favours open woodland with a short-grass understorey and patches of bare ground. It avoids the interior of indigenous forest.

Typical woodland habitat
Ndumo Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Ryan Tippett

The African Hoopoe occurs in virtually all the biomes of southern Africa and inhabits a very broad range of habitats. This is in part due to its ability to adapt to man-made habitats like parks, gardens, orchards, farmyards and plantations.

Behaviour

The African Hoopoe is found singly, in pairs or in small family groups.

Upupa africana
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana)
Albert Falls Nature Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Colin Summersgill

It sometimes dustbathes and is also recorded to partake in passive anting. The flight is ungainly and undulating, with heavy flapping. African Hoopoes roost singly in exposed positions on a tree branch, usually close to its feeding grounds and may use the same spot for many successive nights. Males and fledglings never roost in the nest cavity. Breeding females roost in the nest hole prior to egg-laying and until the young have fledged.

Upupa africana
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana)
Alberton, Gauteng
Photo by Anthony Paton

The African Hoopoe responds instinctively to the alarm calls of other species and engages in the mobbing of predators such as snakes.

The African Hoopoe forages on bare ground or in short-grass patches, probing the ground with its bill or flicking over leaves and dry animal dung in search of insects. The tip of the bill is kept slightly open when probing. Captured prey is held in the tip of the bill before being tossed back into the mouth. Larger prey is beaten on the ground and broken into fragments that can be easily swallowed. The diet consists mostly of insects, their larvae and pupae. It occasionally hawks termite alates. The African Hoopoe does not drink and gains all of its moisture requirements from the food it eats.

Upupa africana
Notice the action of tossing food into its mouth.
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana)
Bellville, Western Cape
Photo by Gerald Wingate

The African Hoopoe is a monogamous, solitary nester and they are strongly territorial when nesting. Territorial defence between males involves displaying with ruffled feathers and wings held open. Males will then usually rush towards rivals until they retreat. Interactions sometimes end up in a chase, accompanied by much calling. If threat displays fail, males will fight with their crests raised as they lock their bills together, often fluttering a few meters into the air before separating and dropping to the ground. During courtship the male spends a lot of time chasing the female, but he also regularly offers her gifts of food in a display of courtship-feeding.

African Hoopoe
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana) in aggression display.
Shellybeach, KwaZulu-Natal
Photo by Lia Steen

The nest site is seemingly chosen by the male. Natural cavities in which to nest are preferred. Examples include natural tree holes, holes in old termite mounds, rock walls or a hole in the ground. Old woodpecker or barbet nest holes are less commonly utilised. The African Hoopoe will also nest in man-made cavities such as those found in nest boxes, drainage pipes, broken walls and crevices in old buildings. Nest sites are located up to 8 m above the ground. Nest cavities are sometimes modified and cleaned of debris by the male, but the African Hoopoe never excavates its own nest hole.

African Hoopoe
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana)
Near Bloemfontein, Free State
Photo by Dawie de Swardt

Nest sites may be used over several years and develop a strong, unpleasant smell after the young hatch. This is probably derived from preen-gland secretions and faeces and is an effective deterrent against predators.

Eggs are laid from August to February and 4 to 7 eggs are laid per clutch. Incubation lasts for around 15 days and begins at clutch completion. However, the female stays in the nest once she has laid the first egg. Incubation is performed solely by the female. The incubating female is fed by the male.

Upupa africana
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana)
Mikado district, North West
Photo by Tony Archer

Chicks hatch synchronously and the female remains in the nest for several days after the eggs hatch. The male does all the foraging at this time and passes food to her, which she distributes to the nestlings. Thereafter, the female joins the male in foraging for food. The nestling period lasts around 30 days, at which point the fledglings will leave the nest to beg or wait for food from the parents. Fledglings are dependant on their parents for up to 1 month after leaving the nest. Nestlings huff and hiss at intruders when alarmed and can discharge a foul-smelling excrement in defence.

African Hoopoe
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana)
Potchefstroom, North West
Photo by Jaco Botes

African Hoopoes are sometimes multi-brooded. They are commonly parasitised by the Greater Honeyguide (Indicator indicator) and possibly also the Lesser Honeyguide (Indicator minor).

Further Resources

This species text is adapted from the first Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP1), 1997.

The use of photographs by Andries de Vries, Anthony Paton, Colin Summersgill, Dawie de Swardt, Gerald Wingate, Jaco Botes, Johan Heyns, Lia Steen, Tino Herselman and Tony Archer is acknowledged.

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name).

Other common names: Hoephoep (Afrikaans); umZolozolo, uZiningweni (Zulu); Ubhobhoyi (Xhosa); Marimamalanga (Tswana); Hop (Dutch); Huppe d’Afrique (French); Wiedehopf (German); Poupa (Portuguese).

List of species available in this format.

Recommended citation format: Tippett RM 2024. African Hoopoe Upupa africana. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2024/05/09/african-hoopoe-upupa-africana/

Bird identificationbirding

Upupa africana
African Hoopoe (Upupa africana)
Heidelberg, Gauteng
Photo by Johan Heyns
Ryan Tippett
Ryan Tippett
Ryan is an enthusiastic contributor to Citizen Science and has added many important and interesting records of fauna and flora. He has been a member of the Virtual Museum since 2014 and has currently submitted over 12,000 records. He is on the expert identification panel for the OdonataMAP project. Ryan is a well-qualified and experienced Field Guide, and Guide Training Instructor. He has spent the last 18 years in the guiding and tourism industries. Ryan loves imparting his passion and knowledge onto others, and it is this that drew him into guide training in particular. Something that he finds incredibly rewarding is seeing how people he's had the privilege of teaching have developed and gone on to greater things. His interests are diverse and include Dragonflies, Birding, Arachnids, Amphibians, wild flowers and succulents, free diving and experiencing big game on foot. With this range of interests, there is always likely be something special just around the corner!

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