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The Humble Hoopoe: Sunday Morning Bible Bird Study VI

September 25, 2016

This Week’s Lesson – The Humble Hoopoe

The Hoopoe is another member of the list of twenty Unclean Birds whom we’re not supposed to eat. This list comes in numerous versions due to the problems of translating ancient and rare Hebrew words, but that’s a topic for a later lesson. For now, we’ll stay with the Hoopoe, a bird common in Eurasia and Africa, yet most uncommon in ways we shall see.

And these ye shall have in detestation among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are a detestable thing….the hoopoe… (הַדּוּכִיפַ֖תhad·dū·ḵî·p̄aṯ “the hoopoe”)*
Lev 11:13-19 Holy Scriptures accor4ding to the Masoretic Text (HSMT)

Of all clean birds ye may eat, but these are they of which ye shall not eat….and the hoopoe… (וְהַדּוּכִיפַ֖תwə·had·dū·ḵî·p̄aṯ “and the hoople”)*   Deut 14:11-18 HSMT

Eurasian Hoopoe pair (Henry E. Hooper)

Eurasian Hoopoe pair – Upupa epops (Henry E. Hooper)

Slightly larger than an American Robin, a Hoopoe is 11-12″ long, including its slender and slightly decurved 2″ bill. It weighs only 1½ -3 ounces, the same as your quarter-pound hamburger after cooking. The head, neck, breast and belly colors varies from rufous to cinnamon to tawny; the wings and tail are black with irregular white bands; the bill, eyes and legs are black; the long crest feathers are tipped in black. It is an attractive, lively and inquisitive bird. Its name is unlikely to be forgotten or mistaken because for most people who know it, the name is echoic of its call, which varies from hoop-hoop to oo-poo-poo. [Video & call link]

The scientific name is Upupa epops (Latin name upupam + Greek name έποπα). Some other common names are: Arabic hud-hud, Dutch hoppe, French Huppe, Italian upupa, Maltese Daqquqa tat-toppu, Polish Dudek, Portuguese poupa, Spanish Abubilla, Turkish ibibik.

They are distantly related to the kingfishers. On their “birds of prey” branch of the Tree of Life, they split from Owls 75.9 million years ago (MYA), from Trogons 72.1 MYA,  from Kingfishers & Bee-eaters 69.6 MYA, from Hornbills 55.3 MYA and from Woodhoopoes & Scimitarbills 35.2 MYA. [Don’t rely on the permanence of these dates. Research continues.]

Range of the Hoopoe (Wikipedia)

Range of the Hoopoe: Orange-breeding, Light & Dark Green-resident all year; Blue-winter; Brown – Madagascar species (Wikipedia)

Their nesting begins as early as mid-April around the Mediterranean; in Northern Europe as late as early June. Nesting behavior of non-migratory resident birds cycles around the rainy seasons. Nest are in tree cavities, walls, cliffs, earth banks or termite mounds. The female incubates 4-6 (sometimes as many as 12) blue, gray, green, yellow or brown eggs for about 18 days. The male brings her food, but no water, as they are not known to drink. They don’t remove the eggshells or fecal sacs of their young, unlike most other cavity-nesting birds. The young – helpless with sparse down when hatched – fledge (leave the nest) in 3 to 4 weeks,

Feeding the young on the fly (Cowboy54 - From The Grapevine)

Feeding the young on the fly (Cowboy54 – From The Grapevine)

and may stay with their parents until nesting season returns. They feed on the ground and use trees for safety and night roosting. Their typical flight is slow, undulating and a bit haphazard, belying their impressive speed and maneuverability should a falcon take pursuit. Their long crests – normally held flat – may be raised in excitement or alarm. They can be found alone or in small bands which are probably family units, but they are not gregarious. Hoopoes can be tamed; one became accustomed to eating a boiled egg for breakfast.

Shorebirds and waders often have chunky bodies and long slender bills, but they usually stay close to water, when not actually in it. In the Hoopoe’s preferred dry, park-like habitat, only Lapwings remotely resemble them.

Northern Lapwing - Vanellus vanellus (Photo - Sulgrave)

Northern Lapwing – Vanellus vanellus
(John Sheppard – Sulgrave, GB)

Until recently the Hoopoe was classified into ten subspecies, but one was split off as Madagascar Hoopoe Upupa marginata (a decision lacking universal scientific agreement), leaving the rest of the Hoopoes stuck with the less euphonious name, Eurasian Hoopoe.

Madagascar Hoopoe -Upupa marginata (Matthew Golding - Flickr)

Madagascar Hoopoe -Upupa marginata
(Matthew GoldingFlickr photo)

Hoopoes have been admired for millennia and are well-represented in our art. Bartolo’s often reproduced painting, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, depicts a pheasant, a quacking duck, several small birds in a tree and a Hoopoe in the foreground on the ground,  all paying rapt attention to the words of this,

St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, Taddio di Bartolo, 1362-1422 (Jean Louis Mazieres - Flickriver)

St. Francis Preaching to the Birds – find the Hoopoe, Taddio di Bartolo, 1362-1422 (Jean Louis Mazieres – Flickriver)

presumably their favorite saint. There are two stories of Francis involving preaching and birds. The first is that Francis and friends were walking through the Spoleto Valley of Italy when he spotted a flock of birds and ran over to them. “Beloved birds,” he greeted, expecting them to fly away. They stayed, and he preached while they silently listened. The second is that Francis, preaching to a crowd from a balcony in Alviano, had to contend with swallows building nests nearby and chattering noisily. Francis finally called to them, “My sisters, swallows, it’s my turn to speak now, because you’ve already said enough. Listen to the word of God. Stay still and be quiet until it’s over.” Reportedly the swallows fell silent until Francis finished. Francis seems to have loved everyone and everything. Would that today’s Italians felt as friendly towards their birds, rather than eating them all, large and small.

Bird tree with Hoopoe, Tomb of Khnun-Hotep, Beni Hasan, Egypt (

Bird tree with Hoopoe, Tomb of Khnun-Hotep, Middle Kingdom, Beni Hasan, Egypt (

Wall paintings in the Egyptian tomb of Khnum-hotep II, dated to 1950-1900 BCE, clearly shows a Hoopoe and many other birds.

Neb-amun hunting birds in the marshes (

Neb-amun hunting birds in the marshes, Tomb of Khnun-hotep, Middle Kingdom, Beni Hasan, Egypt. No Hoopoes in the marshes. (

Many scientists say the Hoopoe is the sole species in their evolutionary family, Upupidae. Humans are similarly alone; our cousin Homo species are long extinct, probably at our hand. The Old World range of the Hoopoe virtually replicates ours at the end of the last ice age. They dislike large bodies of water and never made it to Australia, most of Japan or the New World, although they occasionally stray across the channel to England.

Hoopoe on Bamboo, Zhao Mengfu 1254-1332 (Shangai Museum)

Hoopoe on Bamboo, Zhao Mengfu 1254-1332 (Wikipedia – Shangai Museum)

Ever since Homo erectus, our predecessor species, left Africa and wandered to the far reaches of Eurasia, our ancestors have found Hoopoes close at hand. Throughout our shared range we find them in savannas, open woodlands, forest clearings, cultivated ground and gardens, probing the ground with their long slender bills. As we adapted to life as herdsmen and farmers, Hoopoes remained nearby, gleaning our pastures and fields. The snails, spiders, centipedes, ant-lions, and lizards which they gleaned from our gardens and fields and ate within our easy eyesight, is what branded them an Unclean Bird. [Snails were definitely a no-no.] Divine taboos were not placed on tiny forest birds unnoticed by human eye, no matter how loathsome and lethal to humanity their choices in cuisine might be. Hoopoes gave us their lively beauty and ate our pests. Sometimes our landscape changes suited them; sometimes not. Mostly, we coexisted.

Israel's National Bird in Ramat Gan (Zachi Evenor 5-22-10)

Israel’s National Bird in Ramat Gan (Zachi Evenor 5-22-10, on Wikipedia)

Hoopoes and Humanity: Fellow Passengers on Spaceship Earth
Hoopoes and humans are orphans; solitary species within our respective families. The large mammals preserved in La Brea pits were probably hunted into extinction by humans. Australian species vanished when Aborigines burned the landscape to suit their own needs. The aurochs, cave bears, elephants and rhinos of Europe are gone. Half of Hawaii’s bird species disappeared during the millennia between the arrivals of Polynesians and Euro-Americans. Humans are a dangerous species and the future of any creature that gets in our path is not promising. Our only successful adversaries are those who avoid confrontation and, like water, seek the low road, remaining obscure, like bacteria, rats and cockroaches. But through all the changes and depredations of human history, Hoopoes held their noble visibility, sharing our lands and lives, yet staying at arm’s length, neither dangerous nor useful to us.

Hoopoe stamps (Austria and Botswana)

Hoopoe stamps (Austria and Botswana)

Humans typically exhibit an anthropocentric view of nature – “What does it do for me?” This attitude may muster economic forces to protect species or habitat, because, “Maybe we’ll find a cure for cancer!” We make much ado about the value of an individual’s life and freedom, yet rarely extend concern and courtesy to our fellow passengers on our earthly ark. Their lives have value for them as ours do for us, whatever one thinks of the other. If we understood that “dumb animals” participate as richly in their own lives as we do in ours, we might not act as we do towards them. What may we learn from them?

Explorer Speke, 1st European to see and Map Lake Victoria, July 1858 (Central African Republic stamp2)

Explorer Speke, 1st European to see and map Lake Victoria, July 1858 (Central African Republic stamp)

Hoopoes are a good example of how the meek may yet inherit the earth. Better yet, perhaps they unintentionally do what Jesus, much later, told his disciples when he sent them out to preach:

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.   Matthew 10:16   New King James

Bible Factoid #6 – Catching Forty Winks
One way to do textual analysis and gain a glimpse into a writer’s mind is to find their favorite words and determine just how much they like them. All following citations are from the King James Version.

I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights… Genesis 7:4
and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights…. Exodus 24:18
And forty sockets of silver he made under the twenty boards… Exodus 36:24
…the LORD thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness… Deuteronomy 2:7
Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing… Luke 4:2
To whom also he shewed himself…being seen of them forty days… Acts 1:3

As in modern parlance, “Forty? What’s up with that?”

What with all the armies and ages and apostles, numbers are very common in both Jewish and Christian scriptures. We even find an important Jewish scripture, fourth book in the Torah (Pentateuch) entitled “Numbers” in the Christian version. [The Jewish version is more appropriately titled “In the Wilderness.”] So let’s look at some numbers.

I combed through my bible concordance, counting citations for all numbers (one, two, etc.) and ordinals (first, second, etc.). It didn’t give all citations – just significant ones. I discovered that “forty” was by far the most common of multiples of ten between ten and one hundred (first chart). Among all numbers (second chart) it was fourth, surpassing 1000, 100 and even 10 itself.

BibleStudyTools, a great online site for biblical nit-picking, lists 145 occurrences for the word “forty.” Here “forty” rates only sixteenth, but this list includes all citations of the word, such as:

Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Gad, were forty and five thousand six hundred and fifty.
Numbers 1:25

The verse above counts as one citation each for: forty, five, thousand, five thousand, six, hundred, six hundred, and fifty. These sorts of biblical citations are innumerable (pun intended). There are fourteen citations like this one, every one beginning with “forty and xxx thousand…” Although this exceeds the limits of randomness, I did not include citations such as these in my two charts.

Thirty-nine citations referred to counts of various sorts: “So all the cities which ye shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities…” (Numbers 35:7) Seven citations referred to ages: “Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building…” (John 2:20) I didn’t included these either.

Six citations referred to the flood, twenty to Moses on his various mountains, ten for Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert, four for Jesus meditating in the desert. Such clusters were counted as one citation each.

After subtracting 121 citations of low or no significance, twenty-four remained. I examined sixty different numbers; three had greater frequency than “forty.” Not unexpectedly, they were “one,” “first” and “seven” (second chart) “One” and “first” need no explanation of significance; “seven” is a magical number in many cultures and religions, and its high frequency was expected. For the same reason, I expected “three” to be higher than its 6th place rating. At the bottom, “sixty” and “ninety” were never used meaningfully (symbolically).

So, again…what’s up with forty?

The most common opinion is that forty symbolizes trial, testing or judgment.
And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights. Genesis 7:12
And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years… Exodus 16.35
And [Moses] was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights… Exodus 34:28
…the LORD delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years. Judges 13:1
And Jonah…said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. Jonah 3:4
And [Jesus] was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan… Mark 1:13

There is also the legal limit on lashes, which can certainly be considered a “trial.”
Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed… Deuteronomy 25:3

Another explanation is that forty symbolizes a “generation of man.”
And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith… Genesis 26:34
And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness. Numbers 14:33
And the land had rest forty years. And Othniel the son of Kenaz died. Judges 3:11
To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. Acts 1:3

Versions #1 - #39 didn't work so well

Versions Nos. 1 – 39
didn’t work so well

One source claims:
According to saint Augustin, forty expresses the perfection ‘because the Law was given in ten commandments, then it is through the whole world that the Law has been preached, and the whole world is composed of four parts, Orient and Occident, South and North; therefore, by multiplying ten by four, we obtain forty.’

I didn’t know that St. Augustine had enough imagination to come up with that doozy.

But the two popular explanations don’t cover the many dozens of non-random appearances of “forty.” I have the suspicion that it was also used as we use “dozens,” “bazillion” or “many” – an indefinite large number that simply sounds good to our ears.
Those that were numbered of them, even of the tribe of Reuben, were forty and six thousand and five hundred. Numbers 1:21
About forty thousand prepared for war…to the plains of Jericho. Joshua 4:13
…and David slew the men of seven hundred chariots of the Syrians, and forty thousand horsemen… 2 Samuel 10:18
And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots… 1 Kings 4:26
Then made he ten lavers of brass: one laver contained forty baths… 1 Kings 7:38
In the four corners of the court there were courts joined of forty cubits long and thirty broad… Ezekiel 46:22

The writers of the bible didn’t do that with “sixty” or “ninety.” That’s something to think about while you’re trying to catch forty winks.

Part I – What About That Dove? & The Flood of the Gilgamesh
Part II – Sandgrouse or Quail? & YHVH [יְהוָ֖ה] [Yahweh]
Part III – Junglefowl in Judea! & New Testament Koine Greek
Part IV – Birds that Sow, Reap and Store & Whence Jesus (Ἰησοῦς)
Part V – The Friendly Raven & The Bar-Abbas Mystery
Part VII – The Wise Hoopoe & On “On”
Part VIII –Don’t Eat That Bird! Part 1 & Of “Of”
Part IX – Don’t Eat that Bird! Part 2 & Seeing “Red”
Part X – Don’t Eat that Bird! The Last Bite & The Problems of Translation

[Chuck Almdale]

*The word “hoopoe” comes in two forms in the bible.
הַדּוּכִיפַ֖ת (had·dū·ḵî·p̄aṯ) “the hoopoe”  1 occurrence Lev 11:19
וְהַדּוּכִיפַ֖ת (wə·had·dū·ḵî·p̄aṯ)  “and the hoopoe”  1 occurrence Deut 14:18
The root word  דּוּכִיפַת (dū·ḵî·p̄aṯ) does not actually occur in the bible.

Additional Sources:
Tree of Life 
To navigate Tree Of Life, click binoculars icon in upper right corner, enter bird name and press “next hit” until you get to your bird. An invaluable tool. Almost a “one-stop-shopping” research site for the bible.
  A very useful site.

1. Birds of Europe. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterström, D., Grant, P.J. (1999) Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. – Pg 220.
2. Dictionary of Birds. Campbell, Bruce. (1974) Peerage Books, London. – Pgs 22-23, 347.
3. Handbook of Birds of the World (HBW), Vol. 6. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds. (2009) Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Hoopoes – Pgs 396-411.
4. Holy Scriptures: According to the Masoretic Text. (1955) The Jewish Publication Society of America. Philadelphia.
5. Nelson’s Comfort Print Bible Concordance. Youngblood, Robert F. (1995) Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN
6. New English Bible with the Apocrypha, The, Oxford Study Edition. Sandmel, Samuel, Suggs, M. Jack, Tkacik, Arnold J.; eds. (1972) Oxford University Press, New York

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