The hamerkop, seen regularly around Londolozi’s Sand River and waterholes, is by no means the most visually appealing bird we find here. With it’s dull, plain-brown plumage, the only thing that really sets it apart is its crest, from which it gets its name (hamerkop means hammer-head in Afrikaans).
Yet these aesthetically unobtrusive birds are exceptional in almost every way.
First of all, hamerkops aren’t really related to anything. They have been placed in their own family as they have been judged to have no “particularly close relationship with any other living bird so far studied.”
If that doesn’t make them unique, I don’t know what does.
They are relatively common birds across the continent, and this be may in large part to their featuring strongly in African folklore. Often associated with witchcraft and the occult, to harm a hamerkop or their nest is taboo in many tribes. Anyone who did so needed to make immediate reparations with a witchdoctor in order to escape the potential consequences, which could range from death by lightning strike to their house being destroyed by fire. If one actually lands on your house, it will bring you bad luck so you had better move!
A lot of the superstitions surrounding hamerkops stem from their incredible nests, one of which can be seen below:
Assembled from a collection of sticks and branches, the massive structures take on average 6 weeks for a hamerkop pair to build, and are usually placed in a high tree fork or even on a cliff edge. The entrance tunnel and inner walls are smoothly plastered with mud, and the total weight of the nest can be in excess of 50kg. Nests have been recorded easily holding the weight of an adult man!
During construction, hamerkops are known to decorate the interior with ornaments, a bit like magpies are known to do. The fact that a lot of these collectables are human artefacts may well have contributed to the association of hamerkops with dark magic, as sorcerers and witches were known to require a possession of a person – be it a strand of hair or an object that belonged to them – in order to cast a spell or place a curse on that individual.
Now take a deep breath as we run you through what was pulled out of a single Hamerkop nest in Zimbabwe in 1985: a pan brush, a cassette tape, a glove, a plastic dish and cup, two peacock feathers, chicken feather, two socks, rabbit fur, 45 rags, four corn cobs, a piece of glass, four bits of wire, a comb, one pair of underpants, typewriter ribbon, a piece of leather belt, four bits of stocking, two bits of tin, two bits of foam, some rubber, seven bits of hosepipe, nine bits of plastic electrical piping, six bits of asbestos roofing, 11 bones, 12 pieces of sandpaper, four lengths of insulation tape, ten plastic bags, nine pieces of paper, 56 scraps of tinfoil, six bicycle tyres and six lengths of insulating wire.
That’s well over 200 items of human origin (apart from the feathers and rabbit fur)!
People used to be incredulous when they observed hamerkop pairs taking ages to build their enormous nests and then immediately abandoning them to start building another one elsewhere. More often than not though, what had happened was that upon the nest being completed, a barn owl, cobra or other threat to the hamerkops had moved in and evicted them! Seems a bit unfair. The fact that dangerous serpents like pythons or cobras would be regularly seen entering nests also can’t have helped the birds escape their reputation as part of the occult.
Although superstition and myth have followed hamerkops through much of Africa, not all tribes or cultures share these beliefs. In parts of Zambia they are eaten freely, while in Kenya, some of the names given to the bird by the Kikuyu tribe portray it as being foolish and clumsy, which possibly stems from its supposed habit of catching frogs and them allowing them to escape almost immediately. Among the Mbeere, a community not far from the Kikuyu, the bird is deemed proverbially stupid.
At Londolozi hamerkops are plentiful. A number of nests dot the reserve, forming marvellous reference points for rangers and trackers out on drive or on foot. Some of the nests are active, while a few of the older ones have collapsed under their own weight, and now form giant platforms upon which Verraux’s eagle owls and other birds of prey have moved in to use as nests of their own.
Whatever our beliefs about these small waterbirds, at least we can rest easy in the knowledge that in this reserve, they are just as protected as the more famous big cats and high-profile game, so no one is going to be inviting a lightning strike down on themselves any time soon.
And one hasn’t landed on my house yet, as far as I know, so I can stay put for now…