The Hamerkop (Scopus Umbretta)


Another one of my favourite birds came up for this episode of #BeakoftheWeek.

Hamerkop flying

Hamerkop flying

As instantly recognisable as horse in a dog show, there is no mistaking the Hamerkop. With its hammer-like head (hence the name) and cocksure strut, this bird seemingly knows it is something special.

The hamerkop is endemic to sub-saharan Africa and Madagascar and is usually found around wetlands foraging in shallow waters for frogs, tadpoles and small fish.  The “peacocking” that this species exhibits is added to by the purple iridescent gloss on its back that stands out from its brown plumage.

They are not shy and many pictures and videos that I have found show it happily fishing in the company of crocodiles and chilling out on the backs of hippos.

Scopidae is a monotypic family, with the hamerkop being the only member.  Its closest relative is the intimidating Shoebill stork, of BBC Africa fame and the stuff of nightmares.  If you click this handy link to OneZoom you can peruse other close relatives of this species.

Standing are around 50cm and weighing just under half a kilo, this species is a medium sized wading bird.  It has partially webbed feet and a comb-like (pectinated) middle-toe that it uses to groom.  Here is a nice short article on pectinate toes if you wish to read more.

The Hamerkop is known to breed all year round in Eastern Africa although breeding times vary across the rest of the continent.  This species is famed for its penchant of building large elaborate nests which I will go into shortly.  They normally lay 3-6 eggs which take around 30 days to hatch and a further 44-50 days to leave the nest.

Hamerkop chilling on the back of a hippo whilst snacking on an amphibian treat.

Hamerkop chilling on the back of a hippo whilst snacking on an amphibian treat.

The internet bird collection has a charming picture of a 7 day old chick which I highly recommend taking a look at.

The monstrously large nest that this species builds can weigh between 25 and 50kg and stand up to 2 metres high and 2 metres wide.  This behemoth of a nest, made up of thousands of twigs, takes between 3 and 6 weeks to build. A serious amount of effort goes into making a nest of that size, which makes the fact that a pair can build numerous nests, some of which will never be used, even more impressive.  I think they are the avian equivalent of that friend who always has to out-do your achievements.  Although saying that you would have to try hard to get noticed if a Shoebill was your closest relative.

Hamerkops are known to be quiet when on their own, but vocal when in the company of others.  You can have a listen to some below, or you can head over to Xeno Canto for a greater variety of audible delights.

I was pleased to see that this species is of Least Concern on the IUCN redlist due to its very large range and population size.  This may be helped by the following…

As I have mentioned before, we here at team MacroBird love myths and legends, and one that has persisted about this species is that you will get struck by lightning if you steal from its nest.  This has led to it being dubbed the ‘lightning bird’ by the Kalahari bushmen.  I have even read tales of how you can get Leprosy from destroying their nests.  I think what we have learnt here is that it is best to just stay away from their nests altogether.


BirdLife International. 2012. Scopus umbretta. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22697356A40280654. Downloaded on 02 December 2015.

Elliott, A., Garcia, E.F.J. & Boesman, P. (2014). Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2014). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 2 October 2015).

Images and Videos

Hamerkop flying taken by Mattias Hofstede, IBC238943. Accessible at

Hamerkop on Hippo taken by David Cantrille, IBC257371. Accessible at

Helen Kavanagh. 2012. Group of Hammerkop birds in the maasai mara. Online. 02/12/2015. Available from:


Andrew Spencer, XC269286. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Accessible at