Written by Lucy Brzoska
A woman comes out on the fire escape to smoke a cigarette. Nearby there’s a Judas tree – it’s seen better days and bears little foliage now, only on the highest branches. The woman stands and talks on her mobile. She’s unaware that on the other side of the tree, there’s movement and two eyes appear at a hole.
Undeterred by the proximity of the office block, hoopoes (Upupa epops) have nested inside the tree. People are constantly walking to and fro, but it doesn’t bother them. Perhaps because these eye-catching birds have also perfected the art of melting into the background. In flight they’re a flurry of black and white, and uncertain zigzag direction. But on the ground they blend in with the dust of the paths or the dappled shadows under the trees.
The hollow tree is conveniently surrounded by excellent foraging ground, with scattered pines and sparse grass. I watched the parents walk about probing for bugs in the soft earth, unnoticed by busy passers-by. Whenever they returned to the nest, an item of food held fast at the tip of their long pincer-like bills, they were greeted by their hissing young.
Hoopoe nests are so renowned for their stink that it was disappointing to find no evil odour emanating from the hole. It was too high to look into or, for that matter, to receive a faceful of noxious nestling fluid, another defensive measure they employ.
A week later, the young hoopoes were no longer content to sit still in the protective darkness of their tree. Leaning out inquisitively, they would look in all directions – at the sky, neighbouring trees, at me. If I took a step too near, then the faces would disappear inside and remain hidden.
It was no surprise to find the nest deserted the following week. And no sign of the family. Despite its plentiful food supply, this small park has an important drawback for tender young hoopoes taking their first forays into the world: a colony of cats, who can be seen crouching, hypnotised by the busy tree creepers.
Nearly a month later, when the parents were busy with a second clutch, I found a young hoopoe dozing on a branch. It was in another park, but very near, so there’s a chance it was one of the brood, now fending for itself. It looked rather vulnerable, with soft downy breast feathers. Luckily, it had found a place where cats are actively discouraged.
The next day the fledgling was still there, but this time bright-eyed and awake. It studied me, and decided I wasn’t a danger, allowing me to observe a curious episode. In the full noonday sun, it snuggled into the loose sand of the path, burrowing down till its tail was grey with dust. Sitting there like a brooding hen, it occasionally shuffled itself further into the hollow. There was none of the vigorous dust-flinging that goes on when a sparrow takes a dust bath, nor any attempt to preen. It merely stretched its neck, with a tentatively flickering crest, and its bill began to gape.
Sufficiently baked, the hoopoe finally moved into the shade, where conveniently an irrigation sprinkler had just been turned off. After drinking from the rivulet of fresh water, the young bird flew a short distance for some vigorous foraging among tree roots. That’s when it gave me a clue to its activity. Without warning, its crest stood on end, and tail and wing feathers were splayed out. It seemed to have received an electric shock. Or been stung by an insect.
Then I remembered the “anting” activity that some birds perform – active anting, which involves capturing ants and placing them inside the plumage, or passive anting, which hoopoes are known to do. They can adopt quite dramatic postures spreadeagled on the ground, making it easy for the insects to hop on board. Anting is not fully understood: the formic acid secreted in ant bites might help control parasites. Or maybe the sensation of ants among feathers is soothing, especially during a moult. Regardless, anting and related activities like dusting and sunbathing, give birds great pleasure. A new urban activity can be added to the list: massage by air-conditioning.
The young hoopoe continued foraging, its crest still restless. Finally, it flew up to a branch, and settled down for a siesta.