Australian birders – well some of the twitchier variety anyway – have been all in a lather since the recorded arrival late last week of a single Eurasian Hoopoe at the Roebuck Plains Roadhouse, 30 kilometres outside Broome in the far north of Western Australia. It all started with a post at Birding-Aus, an Australian birders web-log. At 2.43 pm last Friday – just as most of us were thinking about that first beer at the pub after work – the following note appeared on Birding-Aus:

This isn’t a crank posting, there is actually a Hoopoe at Roebuck Roadhouse 30kms out of Broome right now. Bird was found by Kim Oton, Maartin Hulzebosche, Arthur Keates and Chris Hassell a few minutes ago.

You can see some of Kim Oton’s photographic proof – including a rather intimidated Peaceful Dove – here. You can see more of Rajiv Lather’s work at his excellent Birds of India site.

As best as I can tell this Hoopoe is an Australian first.

Just how it managed to find its way to Broome – which is no stranger to birds from far-off continents – was the matter of intense speculation on Birding-Aus and elsewhere.

Here is one theory:

…the correct answer is that ssp epops is strongly migratory between Eurasia and Africa, the bird would have got here…by accident down the wrong side of the Indian Ocean.

And another:

There’s a lot of cargo ships oil/LNG tankers and iron ore vessels moving between north-western Australia and China these days. Don’t know if any of these ships anchor at the Port of Broome, but they certainly do at Port Hedland, which is about 450 km SW of Broome. Port Hedland ships would pass close to Broome’s coastline. Also, I think cruise ships anchor at Broome. I think it would be easy for a Hoopoe to hitch a ride on one of these ships.

The thread then descended into bad jokes and puns about illegals and boat-arrivals. If anyone is interested, the bird was still there as of Sunday afternoon.

We’ll leave that Hoopoe in peace for  for a while.

Hoopoes, while as rare as in Australia, are common in many other parts of the world and, perhaps because they have a head alternately shaped like a golden crown or a double-headed garden pick-axe they have attracted a firm place in myth, legend and religion.

I’m organising a session at next years International Society of Ethnobiology conference in Montpellier dedicated to ethnoornithology, a sub-discipline of ethnobiology which examines the points where birds, culture and peoples intersect…and sometimes collide.

One of the papers we are hoping to post there is from Michel Hasson and Michel Louette who have been working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the abstract for their paper, which examines the “Interpretation of bird activities and superstition in Katanga” in the DCR they look at a local Hoopoe legend:

The following legend perpetually circulates among people in Upper Katanga: the Hoopoe does not leave during the rainy season, but shuts itself up in a tree hole with a supply of seeds stolen from the fields.

It is supposed to steal peanuts, beans, and other cultivated grains on which it would feed during the rainy season.

The villagers try to find these Hoopoe “retreats” because, in addition to proteins provided by the bird, they would also benefit from these various seeds for their own use. Ornithologists evidently know that the Hoopoe is insectivorous.

There is no shortage of other tales about the Hoopoe, not least this marvellous connection with ancient royalty:

How King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba first met, by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, ruled not only over men and women, but also over the beasts, birds, demons, spirits and all the specters of the night. Naturally, he could speak all their languages.

One night he invited all the birds to sing to his noble guests. All came except the hoopoe. Angry, the king ordered a search, and when the hoopoe was found and rebuked, the bird explained that he was not guilty of disrespect. On the contrary, for the last three months he had hardly tasted any food or water, flying all over the world to discover if any place existed which was not yet subject to Solomon.

Finally he found the land of Sheba, ruled by a beautiful and wise woman called Queen Balkys, where they have not heard the name of Solomon. The lush land in the middle of the desert boasted gold, silver, and great gems, and one of the most valuable treasures of the royal line was the throne, intricately carved of precious woods and inlaid with ivory and gold. The inhabitants of Sheba did not know the meaning of war, said the hoopoe. Solomon could easily conquer the land and take all its fabulous riches.

But that was not the king’s wish. Instead, he wrote a letter and tied it to the wing of the hoopoe. The letter invited the queen to come and pay tribute to King Solomon, like the rest of the kings and queens of the world. If she would consent to do so, he would treat her with honor and bestow gifts upon her country. If she would refuse, her land would be attacked and destroyed in the name of the one true God who gave Solomon his supremacy.

All of this reminded me that some time ago I found that the Hoopoe had been crowned as Israel’s national bird. As Israel’s Y-Net News noted back in 2008 the Hoopoe made it through a unique selection process:

President Shimon Peres announced the Hoopoe as Israel’s new national bird.

The Hoopoe won an election held by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which concluded on Thursday after months of voting. 155,000 people participated in the nationwide election.

The road to choosing Israel’s national bird was long but entertaining.

Last December, over 1,000 bird lovers participated in a seminar held in Tel Aviv University, during which they were asked to select 50 nominees for the title out of a long list of various candidates. That list was then narrowed down to the bulbul (Pycnonotidae), the red falcon, the goldfinch, the biblical vulture, the spur-winged plover, the honey-sucker, the warbler, the white-chested kingfisher, and the white barn owl. 

The Hoopoe raked in 35% of the votes nationwide, and also won first place in the election held by Ynet with 20% of the net-surfer vote. 

Peres commended the election, and said that “Today more than ever we need green scenery, fresh air, and the beautiful, multi-colored birds that flock here.” He added that “Ornithology is one of the main assets of our small country.” The president also remarked that 500 million birds pass through Israel’s skies annually. “For such a small country, that’s a world record,” he concluded.

Now that’s democracy.

And I hope that Broome’s Hoopoe story has a happy ending.