Things to Know About the Hamerkop

The Hamerkop, also known as Scopus umbrette, is a medium-sized wading bird that belongs to the family Scopidae. This species was long thought to be categorized under the order Ciconiiformes with stork species, but the Hamerkop now falls under the order Pelecaniformes, with its closest relatives such as pelicans and shoebills.

The Hamerkop was first described by German naturalist, botanist, and malacologist Johan Friedrich Gmelin in 1789. This bird species was named after its head shape, curved bill, and back crest that resembles a hammer. This species is known for other names such as Anvilhead, Hammerkopf, Hammerhead, Hammerhead Stork, Tufted Umber, Umbrette, and Umber Bird.

Several legends exist because of Hamerkops. In some African regions, locals believe that other birds help Hamerkops build their nests. Wilhelm Bleek’s ǀXam informants believe that when a Hamerkop flies and calls over their camp, it means someone close to them had passed away. Meanwhile, Kalahari Bushmen, also known as San peoples, believed that lightning hit those who attempt to rob a Hamerkop’s nest. An old Malagasy belief states that anyone who destroys a Hamerkop’s nest will be punished with leprosy. These legends have given the bird species some protection. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List categorized this species as Least Concern.

Its seven levels of scientific classification are as follows:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Pelecaniformes

Family: Scopidae

Genus: Scopus

Species: S. umbrette

The physical characteristics of a Hamerkop

The Hamerkop is famous for its head that resembles a hammer. It is a medium-sized bird that stands around 22 inches in height and weighs 470 grams. Its plumage is brown with purple iridescence on the back. Its tail is darker brown.

Male and female Hamerkops share the same characteristics. An adult Hamerkop possesses a long, slightly hooked bill that extends up to 85 mm in length. The bill looks like that of a shoebill’s. A little Hamerkop has a brown bill, but it turns black by the time it fledges.

Its neck and legs are relatively shorter than other Pelecaniformes species. The only feathered part is up to their tibia. The bare parts of its legs are pure black. An adult Hamerkop has a short tail and big, round-tipped wings that allow the bird to soar and fly well.

The distribution and habitat of Hamerkops

This bird species is widely dispersed across Sub-Saharan Africa. Hamerkops can be sighted in various habitats such as forests, semi-deserts, and other areas where shallow water is present. They can also be found in wetland habitats like rivers, streams, estuaries, reservoirs, marshes, mangroves, irrigated lands, seasonal pools, savannahs, and rice paddies. This bird species is very tolerant of humans—they feed and breed in suburban areas and other man-made habitats.

The behavior of a Hamerkop

Aside from their hammer-like features, another distinct characteristic of this bird species is its nest. Hamerkops build huge, domed nests that are not like any other nest in Africa. It measures 4 ft 11 inches across, and it’s usually strong enough to support a man. A breeding pair of Hamerkops builds a nest in the fork of a tree, near a water source. Though sometimes, nests can be built on a bank, a cliff, a wall, a dam, or the ground. The pair collects sticks and twigs assembled with mud, and then they top it with a domed roof. A single nest has been recorded to take 10 to 14 days to build, and it has been estimated that it would require over 8000 sticks and other plant materials to complete a nest.

Hamerkops obsess over building nests throughout the year. They will create three to five nests a year in their territory, whether they are for breeding purposes or not.

A female Hamerkop will lay three to seven eggs per clutch, and both parents will take turns in incubating the eggs, which lasts about 30 days. The pair will also help in feeding the chicks once they hatch out.

The diet of a Hamerkop

Hamerkop either feeds alone or with a pair during the daytime. A Hamerkop’s diet consists of aquatic invertebrates, fish, shrimp, insects, and rodents. It wades through water in search of prey. It disturbs prey beneath the water by raking their semi-webbed feet through the water or they flap their wings.