A striking and unique-looking bird, Hoopoes are widely distributed throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. While there was just one formal species of Hoopoe, they’re now usually seen as three separate species; the Eurasian Hoopoe, Madagascar Hoopoe and the African Hoopoe. Hoopoes are best known for their incredible crests, but what do Hoopoes eat?
Hoopoes feed almost solely on insects, arthropods and invertebrates of various kinds. However, they do also eat small reptiles, amphibians and mammals, up to around 15cm in length. Hoopoes have long bills relative to their body size, which are around 5cm long. The birds use these bills to pry under leaves, bark, and the earth's surface in pursuit of food.
A colourful and striking bird, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hoopoes live mainly in the tropics. In actual fact, Hoopoes live as far north as Russia, Poland and Lithuania. They also live at high altitudes in Tibet in Asia and the Alps in Europe. While Hoopoes forage and live primarily on the ground, these birds are strong flyers and are observed migrating over the Himalayas at altitudes exceeding 25,000ft!
Are you looking for more facts about these curious birds' foraging and feeding habits? Read on!
Hoopoe with an insect in its beak
Hoopoes are primarily insectivorous, meaning they eat mainly insects. Their staple diet consists of crickets, locusts, spiders, grasshoppers, millipedes, centipedes, mole-crickets, beetles, earwigs, cicadas, flies, bugs and ants.
They’ll also eat the pupae and larvae of any of those insects. Mole-crickets are a critical food item in Europe and make up most of a Hoopoe’s diet in the Alps.
In addition to insects, arthropods and invertebrates, Hoopoes eat lizards, e.g. geckos and skinks, amphibians, e.g. small frogs and toads, and snakes. Most prey items are less than 15cm long, with a preference for smaller creatures of around 15 to 30mm in length. Occasionally, Hoopoes will supplement their diet with berries and seeds.
Hoopoes prefer to hunt on open ground. They skip over the ground to pursue insects and pry at leaves, bark and other debris using their long bill. Prey is extracted from the ground or tree bark using these long bills.
Hoopoes also have strong, sharp claws, which are used to grip larger prey. Live prey is skewered or bludgeoned to death, and the Hoopoe may also remove legs, carapaces and other non-digestible body parts prior to eating.
The Hoopoe does have a rather intriguing behaviour up its sleeve when it comes to foraging - passive anting. Passive anting sees the Hoopoe sit near an ant's nest or colony, allowing the ants to crawl all over it. This isn’t necessarily a foraging behaviour, but ornithologists have struggled to find an explanation for why birds do it.
Leading theories posit that passive anting enables the bird to rid its plumage of parasites or debris, or that the ants cure an itch or irritation. Anting may also trigger ants to release formic acid, making them more palatable to eat. Hoopoes are one of very few birds to engage in passive anting.
Madagascan Hoopoe tossing food into the air to eat
Hoopoes likely feed every day, though there have been no formal studies carried out into the frequency per day.
Hoopoes primarily forage on the ground and prefer to find food in large, open areas. They usually hunt alone.
They use their sharp, long bill to pry and tease at leaves, bark and other foliage. Hoopoes are also great at digging and use their strong feet to scrape at the dirt to extract pupae and ground beetles using their beak. These curious birds also inspect stones, dung and practically anything else they can shift and manipulate with their skewer-like beak.
Eurasian Hoopoe foraging for food
Hoopoes are diurnal birds, meaning they forage during the day only.
Though they have the visual appearance of a tropical bird, Hoopoes live as far north as Russia. Their winter diets are largely the same as their summer diets, though the birds will likely need to pry deeper under the ground to locate hibernating insects.
Many northerly populations of Hoopoes do migrate south in winter, which brings them to regions more abundant in insect life than their northern breeding grounds.
Hoopoe eating a spider
In summer, insect life is generally abundant, so Hoopoes likely won’t struggle to eat whatever they prefer.
Both the male and female have been observed feeding the young. The chicks’ diets are the same as the adult's, consisting primarily of soft insects.
In alpine Europe, mole-crickets are a vital food item that adult Hoopoes feed to their young. Higher nestling failure rates are linked to the low abundance of mole-crickets in the Swiss Alps.
Eurasian Hoopoe (upupa epops) feeding chicks
If you’re lucky enough to live near wild Hoopoes, you can supplement their diet with dried mealworms. Hoopoes are primarily insectivorous and will eat practically any dried or living insect you can give to them.
Hoopoes feed almost solely from the ground. Very rarely, Hoopoes have been observed capturing flying insects during flight, but they prefer to hop and skip across the ground, and inspect foliage for insects.
Hoopoe eating a butterfly
Hoopoes are mainly insectivorous but rarely supplement their diets with seeds and berries. This is uncommon and likely only occurs when insect numbers are desperately low.
Like most birds, Hoopoes solely drink water.
Providing fresh drinking water to birds in your garden is one of the best ways to support them, especially during winter and high summer.
Hoopoe in flight with a grub to feed chicks
Hoopoes won’t feed on conventional bird tables and suspended feeders. If you’re trying to attract wild Hoopoes, provide them with mealworms from a ground feeder. Alternatively, you can just scatter the mealworms on the ground.
Hoopoes have skewer-like bills which are around 5cm long - that’s longer than their entire head!
These long bills greatly assist the Hoopoe in foraging, enabling them to pry at rocks, foliage, dung, foliage and the ground. In addition, they use their bill to dig under the earth's surface and extract ground beetles, larvae and mole-crickets.
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