Photo: © Shutterstock.com/Kasikun_Kamol. Nothing like it: two hoopoes show off their unique plumage pattern 

Perhaps the ultimate in crested birds, the exotic hoopoe is perfectly possible to breed in straightforward aviary conditions, reports German softbill expert THOMAS WENDT.

UNTIL about 15 years ago, my main interest was with the smaller bird species. Hoopoes were to be the first larger birds in my aviaries. After hearing an interesting talk about breeding them at a bird club meeting, I researched the species in depth, obtaining and reading a lot of literature. Once again, I realised that the various hobbyist magazines, such as Gefiederte Welt, Vogelfreund or Europaïsche Vogelwelt are the best “bird books”. A complete collection of these magazines is worth its weight in gold.

After my intensive literature stage, I became deeply interested in the species. After studying hoopoes at the Weltvogelpark Walsrode park in Germany and in various breeder set-ups, I decided to acquire one or two pairs. At that time, in 2004, it was quite quick to acquire two unrelated pairs through exchanges and swaps.

The hoopoe is not to be confused with any other European bird species. Males and females are similar, though in my experience the males are slightly bigger and stronger, and the female’s plumage is rather dull. Hoopoes are orange-pink and the back, wings and tail feathers are barred black-and-white, cross-banded. When the birds are excited, the crest feathers are raised to show off their black tips; with its crest up, a hoopoe has a “hammer-headed” shape. In flight, it looks like a huge butterfly. Young birds resemble adults, but have a much shorter beak.

Since hoopoes are so difficult to sex visually, a test is required, but DNA analysis is very simple, using a freshly plucked tail feather. Over many years I have had a good service from the Institute of Molecular Diagnostics in Bielefeld. Each sample must be placed separately in a small envelope or plastic bag. You simply include a note with the name of the breed or species, and the ring number, and after a few days you get a certificate with the result.

The hoopoe is found in large parts of Africa, Asia and Europe. Personally I have seen hoopoes in Mallorca, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and in Egypt. It is splendid to watch them fly butterfly-style, or forage for food on dry-stone walls. Though typical of warm and dry climates, they adapt well to the less clement weather of northern Germany. They mainly frequent open terrain with bushes and trees; so vineyards, orchards, parks, light woodland and pastures are all favourite habitats.

My two pairs were housed in planted aviaries: 10m long, 2.5m/4m wide and 2.5m high (33ft x 8ft 2in/13ft x 8ft 2in). Each aviary was equipped with a shelter or a wind- and weather-protected area. The planting includes bamboo, elder, grasses and green foliage. Open sandy and earthen areas were also available, since hoopoes like to walk around. Rocks, tree stumps and branches are readily used as perches.

Mixing with smaller birds, according to my experiences so far, does not pose any problems at all. When breeding, however, caution is advised, since hoopoes do plunder nests. I have placed nest protection for smaller species using large-gauge wire mesh. In 2006 I took a chance and allowed some small birds to breed without this protection. As a result, I lost six nestlings of my red-backed shrikes (Lanius collurio) and a brood of tree sparrows to hoopoe predation. On the other hand, several other unprotected nests were not disturbed by the hoopoes.

To prevent losses to four-legged predators, the aviaries are protected with an electric fence. I do not, however, double-wire the aviaries. In the event of unwanted visits, either at night-time or during the day, the hoopoes become agitated, but they don’t panic and fly – instead they shelter on the ground.

As I mentioned, in the late autumn of 2004 I acquired two pairs of hoopoes, which I housed in the aviaries as described above. They settled in and came through the winter very well. In spring, the hooting call became constant.

You must bear in mind that the call of the hoopoe is quite loud and monotonous. In fact, some well-known breeders have given up their hoopoes in order to avoid quarrels with their neighbours.

As soon I had put in the nest cavities, the birds inspected them. I offered three nesting locations, of different sizes and at different heights, in each aviary. At the beginning of May, both females began to lay. After the first egg I hardly saw the females outside the nest hole. The males repeatedly fed both hen birds located inside the breeding cavity. I assumed, therefore, that both pairs were getting on well.

Eggs were laid at the rate of one per day, and the females sat on them from day one. I carried out a daily nest inspection. The females never left the breeding cavity, but moved aside with a soft hissing noise and allowed me to examine the clutches, which consisted of six and eight eggs. Nesting material was not required, but as a floor covering for the nest cavities I had previously installed a thin layer of beech chippings.

Unfortunately, both clutches proved to be infertile. Disappointed, I removed the eggs. Within only a few days, both females disappeared again inside their nest cavities. A check revealed that both hens were laying – but again, not a single egg turned out to be fertile.

At this point, one of the pairs curtailed their breeding activities. However, to my delight, the second pair began a new clutch. Six eggs were laid, four of which were fertile. Then, four days before the first chick was due to hatch, I found the eggs broken inside the nesting cavity.

So my first year with hoopoes was a disappointment – but I put my faith in the year 2006. In addition to my two pairs, I acquired a third unrelated pair.

The original two pairs remained in their aviaries, and the new pair was housed in an aviary measuring 3m long x 3m wide x 2.5m high (10ft x 10ft x 8ft 2in). This aviary was completely covered and closed on three sides.

After all my hoopoes had survived the winter well, I introduced the nesting sites in mid-April. Immediately, all three pairs showed great interest and began to brood almost simultaneously. The females laid six or seven eggs and sat very tightly. Nest inspections were kept to a minimum. The males were very caring and always brought their mates’ food into the nesting cavity. Sometimes the food was given at the entrance, at other times within the cavity. I almost never saw the females outside the nest.

Nest checks revealed that most of the eggs were clear – but, to my joy, a single youngster hatched in all three pairs. I hoped that the parents would provide well for their offspring. They did so excellently, and the young ones grew fast and well. On the sixth day I ringed them. They already had very strong legs and ankles at this age. I did not witness the frequently described defensive reactions used by parents and young in the nest. (At both ages, the birds can secrete a noisome fluid; the young are also prone to squirting faeces at intruders!) All they did was hiss at me.

The youngsters spent almost exactly four weeks in the nest. When they flew they were well feathered, and within a few days I had to check the shorter beak in order to tell them from their parents. They were then parent-fed for at least two and a half weeks before they took food for themselves.

After only a few days, all three pairs had begun again with a new brood, but unfortunately none of the eggs were fertile. So my breeding year ended with only three young hoopoes – though they went on to develop into magnificent and healthy birds.

After my somewhat rocky beginning with the hoopoes, the following years delivered very good success. In one year, for example, more than 30 young hoopoes fledged. It proves once again that, as the saying goes: “It is with patience that you reach your goal!”

Hoopoes are highly attractive aviary birds. First and foremost, they are fascinating subjects because of their pretty feathers and interesting behaviour. Although I was able to breed them in mixed aviaries, too, I would advise keeping hoopoes in pairs, because of their habit of plundering the nests of other birds. Further benefits of pairing individually are that other residents do not disturb the pairs, and that the feed can be optimally allocated.

Although it is a few years since I last kept hoopoes, they feature in my plans for the near future, and I intend to conduct some new breeding experiments.

Thanks to softbill expert Gary Bralsford for his help with this article.

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