ORDER: Pelecaniformes

FAMILY: Scopidae

GENUS: Scopus

SPECIES: umbretta

An all-brown bird of 19-20 inches. Toes are partly webbed. A short tail and huge wings enable it to glide and soar easily, which it does with its head stretched forward. The crest on the back of the head mirrors the stout beak and produces the hammerhead shape from which the species takes its name.

South and Central Africa, South Arabia, lowland Madagascar. Shallow fresh water, lakes, ponds, and marshes.

Carnivorous. Feed on frogs, fish and invertebrates.

Hamerkops remain in a well-defined territory, although some pairs will move to normally dry areas when the seasonal rains fill dry holes and ditches. Hamerkops are also to be seen in group ceremonies, usually near a nest. As many as ten birds may call loudly while running round each other in circles, a male sometimes mounting a crouching female and pretending to copulate. Crests are raised, wings fluttered and a chorus of cries continues for several minutes. True mating is usually done at the nest site, using displays similar to those used during larger gatherings. The 3-7 whitish eggs are incubated for about 30 days by both parents (although very frequently partly incubated clutches will be abandoned). The young make their first flight at about 7 weeks but may return nightly for up to a month thereafter to roost in the nest.

They build huge, domed nests which are among the most extraordinary constructions in the bird world. Up to 6 feet high and across and weighing 55-110 pounds, it is made of sticks, reeds, grass, and dead plant stems placed in a tree fork, on a cliff or on the ground. The actual nest chamber lies inside and the entrance hole is reduced in size with mud. Finally the nest itself is lined with waterweed and dry grass. The structure takes 6 weeks to build. The pair builds several nests in their home territory, some of which are never used. An average pair builds three to five nests per year. Other birds and animals including bees, genets, mongoose, monitor lizards and snakes use the nest as a home.

Hamerkops have many legends and superstitions connected with them. Some cultures consider it to be magical and others consider it an evil omen. It is thought by some to be a "shape-changer" since people see the hamerkop fly in and then see another animal, such as a cobra, leave the nest. Since it is held in a position of respect, the bird survives and flourishes in the presence of man.

The Hamerkops can be found in the African Savanna aviary near the lions.

Not endangered. Listed as Least Concern by the IUCN.


  1. Forbes, Peter. 19985. Flightless Birds and Birds of Prey, Torstar Books, NY, p. 72.
  2. Perrins, Christopher M. 1990. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds, Prentice Hall, NY, pp 70, 72.
  3. Sibley & Monroe. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, p. 310.