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The Hoopoe of Afghanistan

Dear Bird Folks,

I wrote to you back in 2005, during my first tour of duty in Afghanistan, and now I’m back here again. (Lucky me.) During my down time I try to study the Afghan birds. I found a poster of the area’s birds but it only has the Latin names. One bird, called “Upupa Epops,” looks very much like a bird that my wife and I saw in South Africa. Can you tell me what bird Upupa Epops is?

– George, U. S. Army, Kabul, Afghanistan


It’s easy, George,

It’s easy to decipher a bird’s Latin name. Just download the latest Latin-to-bird translator App on to your iPhone. It will instantly tell you the common name of any bird. If you don’t have an iPhone yet, just run over to the Apple store and get one. I’m sure there’s an Apple store nearby. It’s usually located next to a Starbucks, so just look for that. Wait! You’re in Kabul. I misread that. I thought you wrote you were in Chicago. Never mind. The Apple store in Kabul probably isn’t open yet. My bad.

George, it is good to hear from you again. I was hoping the next time I heard from you, you would be at a different address, some place more like Chicago and less like Kabul. But, whatever…I’m glad you are okay and still enjoying the birds. I think taking the time look at birds helps lots of people get through the day. So let’s do that right now.

The common name of Upupa Epops, the bird on your poster, is “Hoopoe.” No kidding. It’s really called “Hoopoe.” I know Hoopoe sounds like a Native American tribe or a forgotten Marx brother, but that’s the bird’s real name. Why Hoopoe? Like the Nënë we wrote about a few weeks ago, the Hoopoe gets it amusing name from its song. It makes sense. I mean, what else are they going to call a bird that says “hoop, hoop, hoop” all day long?

If you think the Hoopoe has an odd name, you should see the bird itself. (I understand you have seen it, George. In this case, the “you” refers to everyone else who hasn’t had the good fortune to travel to Kabul.) Hoopoes are about the size of a Blue Jay, have pinkish-brown bodies and flashy black and white wings. Their coloring alone would be enough to make any bird stand out, but it is the heads of these unusual birds that really sets them apart. Hoopoes have long curved beaks, with thin feathers trailing out of the back their heads. With a long beak in the front and feathers sticking out the back, the bird’s head looks like some kind of landscaping tool, and I am not kidding. If you picture a pickaxe with eyes and wings you’ll have the perfect image of a Hoopoe.

Having a head like pickaxe is strange but it’s not the most interesting feature of the Hoopoe’s head. When this bird becomes annoyed it turns its head feathers into an enormous, colorful crest. Suddenly the bird looks as if it has a brilliant fan sitting on top of its head. When I say “fan” I’m not talking about ceiling fans or baseball fans, but the kind of fans hot dancers use in burlesque shows. (Most of you probably knew what kind of fan I meant, but I wanted to give George a little excitement. I don’t think there’s a lot of burlesque going on where he is.)

Usually when a bird is as distinctive as Hoopoes are some muttonhead comes along and tries to capture and cage them all, which ultimately leads to their demise. This is not the case with the Hoopoe. They are common, widespread and with an estimated population of five million, they are clearly holding their own. Hoopoes can be found throughout much of Africa, Europe and Asia. In many locations they are fairly easy to find because these birds actually like people, or at least don’t totally hate us. Hoopoes often come to farms, gardens and parks in search of food. Looking for food is where their pickaxe-shaped heads come into play. Hoopoes use those long, curved beaks to probe the soil for worms and insect larvae. When they think something good is hiding below the surface they jam their beaks into the ground to check it out. With their beaks still lodged in the dirt they use their powerful jaw muscles to spread their mandibles and grab the grub. Don’t ask me how they can extract the food without also getting a beakful of dirt at the same time. That’s a question for your gardener to figure out.

In some locations Hoopoes are migratory, while in other areas they are permanent residents, but they are basically the same birds throughout their vast range. That means the birds in Afghanistan and the ones you saw 5,000 miles away in South Africa, are all the same species. Hoopoes are striking birds to see. I wish we had them here in the States. But what I really wish is that you were in the States, George. As soon as you return I’ll take you to the Apple store and buy you a new iPhone. Wait! I think you misread that. What I wrote was I’ll buy you a coffee at the Starbucks next to it. A nice hot cup of coffee sounds friendlier…and cheaper, too.