Monday, January 17, 2011

A Wonderful Gift for a Birdwatcher!

     I often feel sort of guilty at Christmas time. I know that both my husband and I have just about everything that we could possibly want. How can a family member or friend who wants to give a very nice gift know what to get for either of us? Sometimes I think I should tell my family: "Don't get us anything. We would just like to buy a few presents for the grandkids, and that's all." I said something to that affect to my younger son, and his response was "You don't know what to get for me? Just anything sports related would do just fine." I do know that he doesn't have any other Christmas because he is a single dude. So in answer to all these ruminations, our family continues to get each other gifts -- sometimes very nice gifts. Well, this year my older son and his wife got me a very nice gift and it couldn't have been more appreciated. When I opened the package, I knew from the box that it was a piece of Swarovski crystal (I have a small collection and for a while I purchased the yearly piece). When I opened the box, low and behold here was a pair of hoopoes. I didn't even know that Swarovski had designed such a piece. (Since then I have learned that they have quite a nice collection of crystal feathered friends available.) I immediately recognized the bird and told my son and daughter in law that indeed this bird is my favorite international bird. And I wasn't kidding. Below are two photos of this crystal piece, by Swarovski, the Austrian crystal producer.

     This bird is fairly common in Israel and I have seen it in Israel and in Asia. It is quite widely spread in the Eastern Hemisphere. Right away you know it is going to be a cool bird -- just look at its Latin species name: Upupa epops. Yup! Yoo Poo Pa Eee pops! That's how you pronounce it.  Duchifat in Hebrew. It is the only species in the Upupidae family but there are 5 subspecies that are sometimes considered separate species. The bird I have seen many times, the one in Israel is the Eurasian hoopoe. There is a Madagascar hoopoe that is found in Madagascar and in northwestern Africa that is called the African hoopoe. These two supspecies look very much alike. Hit the Read More button below to learn about the bird and its place in the literature of humanity.

     In May, 2008 to celebrate 60 years of Israeli statehood, an election was held in Israel in the schools and for anyone else who wanted to vote to determine the Israeli national bird. The Eurasian hoopoe won the election. This happened in spite of the fact that the hoopoe is listed in Deuteronomy as an unclean bird and is therefore not kosher for eating. It just barely beat out the white spectacled bulbul, also a very common backyard bird in Israel.  I think the Israelis voted for the hoopoe because it is a very visible bird, feeding on the ground in areas of thin or no vegetation. It flies with a strange butterfly like flight, half closing its wings after every 2-3 wingbeats. It therefore looks like it is a weak flyer, and yet it can elude a falcon with no problem at all.  Its wing patterning is a very prominent black and white checkerboard. It extends its spectacular crest when excited, threatened, or very briefly when it alights. It constantly pokes its long decurved beak into the dusty ground, or into leaf litter looking for grubs and insects. It has a somewhat unusual group of musculature about the jaw that allows the bird to probe with its closed bill into the ground and then to open the bill while in the ground to make passageways to better find the subterranean grubs and insects. Its constant probing in detritus on the ground, sometimes even in manure may have led to its non kosher classification in Deuteronomy.
     A pair is monogamous for a single breeding season. The pair uses cavities for nesting, sometimes in trees or logs, or between rocks or housing blocks or in burrows or termite mounds. It will also nest in nestboxes if provided. They do not make much of a nest but occasionally will introduce a small amount of organic material into the cavity. The female lays from 5 to 12 eggs, laying the higher numbers in regions to the north where it migrates. The pairs that are closer to the equator do not migrate and stay all year. They lay the fewer eggs. The female incubates the eggs while the male feeds her on the nest and while she broods the hatchlings. The nestlings as they grow larger are able to defend themselves in the nest somewhat by hissing, pecking at intruders and, of all things, squirting feces at the intruder. The nest starts fetid because such material is often used as nesting material and the parents do not remove feces from the nest as most birds do. The nestlings and the nesting female also have a gland that produces fetid odored material that smells like rotten meat. This is thought to keep predators away. (All of these habits might have something to do with the Biblical classification of the meat of the bird as not being kosher.) Both male and females feed the young during the later weeks of nesting. After the young fledge they stay with the parents for another week or so and are still fed. The bird is not a song bird. Its main call is an oop-oop-oop, sort of like a cuckoo sound. This is probably where the English name comes from. The birds are seen to enjoy sunbathing with their wings spread and head back, and also often partake of dust bathing or sand bathing.
     I always found this bird very charming and colorful, hence its position on my favorite list. Since the bird is common and visible it has found a place in many myths and the literature of far flung places in the Eastern Hemisphere. They were considered sacred in Ancient Egypt. In China the bird is considered a sacred celestial and lucky messenger, announcing the onset of spring.
     In addition to being the state bird of Israel, it is the provincial bird of the Punjab in India. It appears in the logo of the University of Johannesburg and is the mascot of the University's sports.     .

     The Quran declares that King Solomon was inspecting his unique Hosts; and he reviewed the birds, He had a glance see the hoopoe but he could not see him. The Hoopoe was absent! King Solomon threatened to punish the Hoopoe severely or to kill it unless the Hoopoe has a reasonable excuse! The Hoopoe came back and bravely said that he has got information that King Solomon has no idea about! The Hoopoe said that he found a woman ruling over the people in Yemen and she has a mighty throne. he continued that she and her people were prostrating to the sun instead of Allah. The Hoopoe wondered "why they do not worship Allah; why do they not prostrate to Allah.” King Solomon, said, to the hoopoe: ''We shall see whether you have spoken the truth, or not. He (Solomon) then composed a letter and commanded the hoopoe to take the letter and deliver it to them, and see what kind of response they shall give. The Hoopoe did his job and the Queen, consumed by fear, read Solomon''s letter!

     On the other hand, the Bible in Leviticus 11 declares that the Hoopoe is a Detested and Unclean bird.

     The Bittern and Hoopoe by The Brothers Grimm   translated by Margaret Taylor (1884)
"Where do you like best to feed your flocks?" said a man to an old cow-herd. "Here, sir, where the grass is neither too rich nor too poor, or else it is no use." "Why not?" asked the man. "Do you hear that melancholy cry from the meadow there?" answered the shepherd, "that is the bittern; he was once a shepherd, and so was the hoopoe also,--I will tell you the story. The bittern pastured his flocks on rich green meadows where flowers grew in abundance, so his cows became wild and unmanageable. The hoopoe drove his cattle on to high barren hills, where the wind plays with the sand, and his cows became thin, and got no strength. When it was evening, and the shepherds wanted to drive their cows homewards, the bittern could not get his together again; they were too high-spirited, and ran away from him. He called, "Come, cows, come," but it was of no use; they took no notice of his calling. The hoopoe, however, could not even get his cows up on their legs, so faint and weak had they become. "Up, up, up," screamed he, but it was in vain, they remained lying on the sand. That is the way when one has no moderation. And to this day, though they have no flocks now to watch, the bittern cries, "Come, cows, come," and the hoopoe, "Up, up, up."
Respecting the crest of the hoopoe there is a curious old legend. As is the case with most of the Oriental legends, it introduces the name of King Solomon, who, according to Oriental notions, was a mighty wizard rather than a wise king, and by means of his seal, on which was engraven the mystic symbol of Divinity, held sway over the birds, the beasts, the elements, and even over the Jinns and Afreets, i.e. the good and evil spirits, which are too ethereal for the material world and too gross for the spiritual, and therefore hold the middle place between them.

     On one of his journeys across the desert, Solomon was perishing from the heat of the sun, when the Hoopoes came to his aid, and flew in a dense mass Over his head, thus forming a shelter from the fiery sunbeams. Grateful for this assistance, the monarch told the Hoopoes to ask for a boon, and it should be granted to them. The birds, after consulting together, agreed to ask that from that time every Hoopoe should wear a crown of gold like Solomon himself. The request was immediately granted, and each Hoopoe found itself adorned with a royal crown. At first, while their honours were new, great was the joy of the birds, who paused at every little puddle of water to contemplate themselves, bowing their heads over the watery mirror so as to display the crown to the best advantage. Soon, however, they found cause to repent of their ambition. The golden crown became heavy and wearisome to them, and besides, the wealth bestowed on the birds rendered them the prey of every fowler. The unfortunate Hoopoes were persecuted in all directions for the sake of their golden crowns, which they could neither take off nor conceal. At last, the few survivors presented themselves before Solomon, and begged him to rescind his fatal gift, which he did by substituting a crest of feathers for the crown of gold. The Hoopoe, however, never forgets its former grandeur, and is always bowing and bending itself as it used to do when contemplating its golden crown in the water.

     Once a man, Tereus was transformed into the form of a Hoopoe in Greek mythology,in Ovid's story, The Metamorphasus. The character featured prominently in Aristophanes' Birds.

      A hoopoe figures centrally in The Conference of the Birds, one of the central works of Sufi literature.


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