The other day, one of the two cats that live under the wooden house came trotting along the terrace with a Hoopoe in its mouth.
Now, if you’ve never seen a Hoopoe, and they are hardly ever seen in England, it’s a pigeon sized bird with a curving bill, a long crest on its head, which it often erects on landing, and bold black and white stripes on its wings and tail; a bird such as a small child might draw, or Edward Lear.
Everything about the Hoopoe is odd. The broody females and nestlings have the ability to produce a foul smelling liquid reminiscent of rotting meat, to deter predators, somewhat after the fashion of the skunk. From the age of six days the nestlings are also able to direct a stream of liquid shit at intruders. They can also hiss like snakes. You couldn’t make it up, could you?
One of its sources of food is the processionary caterpillar, which troops through the trees in long files. These caterpillars are covered in irritating hairs and are inedible to most predators, but not the Hoopoe.
Hoopoes can often be seen lying on the open ground with their wings outspread. We have driven past them on the track several times in this supine posture and they seemed quite unconcerned. There are assorted theories to explain this behaviour: sunbathing, I read in one book.
Even the Latin name for the species is peculiar: Upupa Epops, which probably derives from the sound of its call, a carrying oop-oop-oop. It’s the sound of spring here, like the call of the first cuckoo in England.
So I called the cat over and managed to persuade it to part with the bird. It flew off frantically, apparently unharmed, leaving a single black and white feather behind.