Why the Hamerkop is Better than You


There are a select few birds in Africa that are just better than the other ones. The hamerkop (scopus umbretta) belongs to this elite little society because as a species, they possess a true self-awareness of their awesomeness. They know that they’re better than other birds. I will explain.

Birds who are comparable in size to the Hamerkop, build themselves cosy little nests. Bless their socks. Most birds build nests (unless of course you’re a brood parasite and you have better things to do with your time). Hamerkops look at the brood parasites and these other birds with their cramped, pathetic, folk-artsy type ‘nests’, and promptly turn up their noses. They may also roll their eyes.

The Hamerkop chooses his tree fork carefully. It must be large enough to accommodate the 100kg structure he plans on building in it. In addition to these requirements, he can’t do without his fresh sushi and caviar de grenouille, so he prefers waterfront properties. And his back garden must be much larger than yours.

Roughy 10,000 of the finest sticks and grasses are found, judged on their quality and added to the fork in their chosen tree and soon a colossal dome is constructed, with a diameter of about 1.5 meters. It’s the largest and most elaborate double-occupancy nest in all of nature.

But that isn’t enough for the Hamerkop. Unsatisfied with their dull and terribly ‘common’ home, the Hamerkop couple set about decorating it. Like Australia’s Bower Birds, they have developed an affection for man made objects, such as discarded handkerchiefs and the little wrappers that Beacon chocolate Easter eggs come in. These are added to the outside of the nest to assert the couple’s worldliness.

The inside of the nest consists of a grand entrance tunnel, leading to a large chamber with cathedral ceilings. Hamerkops have a unique habit of standing on each others heads, and their living space must accommodate this. The walls and floor are exquisitely carpeted with only the finest mud, ensuring the entire mansion is waterproof.

Warning: The following paragraphs refer to other birds using the Hamerkop’s nest for various birdy purposes. But don’t think you could get away with it like they can. You cannot. People who interfere with a Hamerkop nest WILL pay for it. When you are inevitably struck by lightning at some point in your life, all your buddies are going to know what you did to the Hamerkops. San fact #264.

Some birds are so desperate to be associated with their local Hamerkops, that you sometimes find other nests attached to the outside of a Hamerkop nest. These hangers on are attempting to social-climb and the Hamerkop will see right through it, although they do tolerate it.

But bigger birds (*cough* *OWLS* *cough*), sometimes look at their own modest nests and get jealous. They’ll sometimes attempt a takeover before the poor Hamerkops have even finished building their house, which is foolish, because if it’s not finished, it won’t yet be decorated with chocolate wrappers, and no owl possesses the knowledge to add these all-important finishing touches.

Despite having a bill somewhat reminiscent of their distant Shoebill cousins from the North (and you would NOT mess with that) and a head that can bash nails into metal, the Hamerkop doesn’t really bother to fight back.

Hamerkops seem reasonably easy going. Like an eccentric and laid back billionaire who’s conducting a routine check-up on his uninhabited Knightsbridge property and finds it has been overrun by squatters, a Hamerkop put-out by owls may protest surprisingly little at the re-appropriation. “Chin up. You silly owl squatters. Tut-tut. When you leave, I shall simply return. In the meantime, I shall build a new house- one that puts yours to shame”.

And they do. They don’t seem to mind starting over, because the Hamerkop may build between three and five of these palatial homes each year. With no regard for economy, they build whether they’re breeding or not. They seem to build because they love. One bird book that I own, refers to Hamerkops as ‘DIY enthusiasts’. This is why they have named themselves the ‘Hamerkop’. The name stems from their deep-seated love of DIY and tools. This is contrary to the myth that their name comes from the shape of their head. The Afrikaans word for ‘hammer’ is ‘hamer’ and the word for ‘head’ is ‘kop’, but this is purely coincidental. Personally, I think they’d do well being called, ‘chateaukops’.

So there appears to be little evolutionary explanation for their nesting behaviour. It’s suggested that these waterfront mansions serve as ‘territory beacons’, but I suggest they rather act as ‘fabulosity’ beacons, not only advertising their status, but actually allowing them to perpetuate their well-heeled lifestyle.

For example, if the Hamerkops have managed to keep their fabulous home free from owls, they use it to breed. Being wealthy, and possessing the living space, they can afford to have more children than your average wader. Their kids are exceptionally low maintenance, owing to the fact that insulation in the nest acts as a built-in nanny. So Mr and Mrs Hamerkop are free to spend their leisure time loafing about at places like Sun City, where they impress their friends and exhibit their superiority by being impeccably well-groomed, owing to a built in comb on their middle toe. They have their social traditions too. While on holiday, they’ll often gather in cliques of about ten, and run around each other in circles while loudly insulting each other. “SQUAAAAAAK! My house is bigger than yours!” SQUAAAAAAK! And my children are warmer than yours!” “SQUAAAAK! My house is decorated with Lindt wrappers and yours is decorated with inferior Beacon wrappers! SQUAAAAAK!”. Win.

You can’t deny it. The Hamerkop is better than you. That is all.

Hamerkop photo taken by me in Pilanesburg, Jan 2010. Hamerkop cartoon is stolen from a fabulous website called ‘Birdorable, which may be the best website i’ve ever seen.

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