Order: Ciconiiformes - herons, hamerkop, storks, shoebill, ibises, spoonbills
Family: Scopidae - hamerkop
Scientific Name: Scopus umbretta
Description: The hamerkop is a wading bird that can be easily recognized by its large, heavy beak and backward-pointing crest. It is 22 inches tall, and its neck and legs are short for a wading bird, restricting it to foraging in shallow water. Both males and females are a rich sepia brown color, which becomes iridescent on the bird’s back. There are several darker brown bars on the tail. The beak and feet are black, and the top of the beak has a downward-curving tip. Its wings are broad and rounded. The hamerkop usually uses a flapping flight, with the head partly pulled in towards its body, but it can also be seen gliding with its neck extended.
Home Range: Sub-Saharan Africa
Habitat Type: A variety of wetlands, including estuaries, riverbanks, lakesides, fish ponds, or irrigation schemes; usually requires trees for nesting.
Reproduction: The breeding season varies across the hamerkop’s range, extending to year-round breeding in East Africa. Breeding pairs build several large, elaborate nests, usually changing nest sites every few months. The average nest is 5 feet deep and can support the weight of a heavy man. The nest is constructed out of sticks, usually in the fork of a tree, and is completely covered with a domed roof. The only way in is a small entrance at the bottom, which makes the nest inaccessible to many predators. The pair usually decorates the roof of the nest with bones, bits of plastic, paper, clothing, or other odds and ends. Clutch size is usually 3-6 eggs. Incubation takes 28-32 days. Both sexes help incubate the eggs, but the female incubates more often than the male. The young fledge within 44-50 days.
Diet in the Wild: Mostly amphibians, especially frogs and tadpoles of genus Xenopus; in Mali, almost exclusively small fish; also takes crustaceans, worms, and insects.
Diet in the Zoo: Bird of prey diet.
General Information: The hamerkop’s common name comes from the Afrikaans word for “hammer-head”. Scientists are confident in placing it in an Order with the other wading birds, but the rest of its classification is a riddle. The hamerkop has a middle toe resembling those of herons, a free hind toe as in the flamingos, egg-white protein like the storks, and ectoparasites which are only otherwise found in plovers. It is usually placed in a family of its own, and this placement is supported by the hamerkop’s unique behavior. They are known for building large, multi-chambered, roofed nests that are often used by other animals such as snakes, monitor lizards, honey bees, genets, mongoose, and other birds. Some animals are able to evict the hamerkops from the nest, others move into an abandoned nest, and a few share space with the resident hamerkops (sometimes building their own nest in an unused chamber). Hamerkops are often seen performing a unique “false-mounting” display, with one bird standing on another’s back. The display is sometimes associated with breeding, but not always. Hamerkops feed in shallow water, picking out individual prey items with the beak, and often rinsing them before eating. They can also catch prey from the surface of the water while in flight. They call with a variety of loud, nasal cackles. Hamerkops are thought to be magical by the native people in many parts of their range. Villagers have been known to abandon a hut because a hamerkop flew over it and croaked. Many native people believe that it is bad luck to harm a hamerkop. For this reason, they are usually not wary of people, and they are often seen in villages and nearby fish ponds.
Conservation Status: They are common throughout most of their range.
Predators: Not found.
Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 1. 1992. Ed. J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, and J. Sargatal. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. pp 430-435.