It’s early evening in a rural Swazi village. A brown bird cruises low overhead in buoyant, unhurried flight. At its sharp kek-kek call, an elderly gent looks up and tuts in disapproval. Thekwane is not welcome here.
Birdwatchers might puzzle over how the hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) has earned such a bad rap. After all, this is simply a medium-sized wading bird that is perfectly harmless to humans. And yet we are a superstitious species, and there is something about the hamerkop — perhaps its tendency to appear at dusk, or even its bizarrely enormous nest – that arouses suspicion across much of rural Africa.
In Swaziland and Zululand, where the bird is called thekwane, tradition holds that the call of a hamerkop overhead foretells a death in the village. To the San bushmen, trying to rob the bird’s nest will see you struck by lightning, while doing the same in Madagascar may earn you a dose of leprosy.
To be honest, though, this bird is also an enigma to scientists. Classified as the sole species in its own family, Scopidae, opinion still divides on whether it belongs with storks in the order Ciconiiformes or, now thought more likely, with pelicans in the family Pelicaniformes. Recent studies suggest that its closest relative may be that other avian oddity, the shoebill.
Whatever the taxonomy, this common and widespread bird is easily described. The size of a small, stocky heron, with uniform warm-brown plumage, its signature feature is a bushy crest that projects backwards from its head like a mirror-image of its robust bill. This gives the head a hammer-like profile. Indeed, the bird’s name is Afrikaans for ‘hammer head’.
Hamerkops occur near water, from lakes to ditches, mangroves and paddy fields, and often near human habitation. Although sometimes seen in groups, you’ll more often spot them alone or in pairs, often foraging at the water’s edge or paddling in the shallows, where they use their feet to stir up tasty morsels to grab with their bill. They may also fly low over the surface, legs dangling, dropping on anything they spot. Fish, frogs, insects, crustaceans and rodents all make the menu, and hamerkops will forage like egrets around livestock or even fish from the back of a hippo.
The most remarkable thing about this bird, however, is its nest. This massive edifice — about the size of a washing machine — seems wholly out of proportion with the bird or its needs. Jammed into a tree fork, often overhanging water, its domed roof may support the weight of a man and takes some 10–14 weeks to construct. Alongside 8,000 or more sticks and grass bundles, other building material ranges from clothing and plastic to bones and even bicycle tyres. A tunnel underneath allows access to a neat egg chamber at the centre.
Hamerkops mate for life, and a pair may raise 3–7 young each year. Their great stick fortress is not impregnable, however, and the birds may be ousted by more aggressive rivals such as eagle owls, while other species, from pythons and genets, may also make their home inside or on top. It’s thus always worth getting out your binoculars to check who’s at home.
But while eviction may be a hazard, it is unlikely to suffer this fate at human hands. Traditional fears mean that people generally leave hamerkops well alone. For this bird, at least, it seems that the flames of superstition are best kept well fanned.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.