Hamerkop - By Ranger JacApril 2020
Good morning to the rest of the world from Amakhosi Safari Lodge! Hope everyone is doing well and staying safe! It is Ranger Jacques here trying to bring a little bit of the bush to your homes wherever it may be, we can't wait to have you here with us again. Hopefully sooner than later!
Some of us are of course in the extremely blessed position to have a reserve at our disposal during the nationwide lockdown and have been going out quite often checking on the whereabouts of our beautiful wildlife. We have been spoiled with numerous sightings of cheetah, lion, and even a leopard sighting straight from my house. I have decided to write about something a little smaller and often overlooked for the awesome creatures they are. Many of you who have visited Amakhosi might recognize this character from the cement bridge where one or 2 are spotted on a regular basis.
This bird is called a Hamerkop, an Afrikaans word translating to "hammerhead", due to the shape formed by the bill and crest.
There is no color dimorphism between the male and female and are thus not easy to identify. The male is a bit bigger than the female and these pairs establish long-term bonds.
Finding these birds at the bridge on such a regular basis is no coincidence however as they prey mainly on frogs, small fish and tadpoles. The water at the bridge combining with the rocks and subsequent shallow pools of course resulting in a great hunting spot and constant supply of food. Their legs being quite short means that they are confined to these shallows at the water’s edge or pools where they catch their prey amongst the vegetation or hiding in the mud. These birds can be seen disturbing the mud with their feet and then grabbing any prey with their bill as it tries to escape. They also sometimes hunt from the back of hippos or fly just above the water snatching prey from the surface. A Hamerkop will also follow buffalo and snatch any grasshopper flushed by their movements through the grass.
They will beat the prey against a rock, stump or the ground in order to kill it and then swallow it head first. It has been said that the hitting of platannas (their favorite frog species to hunt) in this fashion could also be done in order to remove the poisonous slime of the body as the Hamerkop has been seen dipping the platanna in the water every now and then between the thrashing of this poor frog. The same method is used with toads that produce harmful fluids.
This bird is however best known for the massive nests they construct. The nests could weigh more than 50kg!! It is said the nest can be 2 meters in diameter and in height. It can take between 4 to 6 weeks to construct or in some cases even months depending on the amount of material available. The reason why they build these massive nests are debatable. It is a closed - chambered structure that is mainly made out of reed materials or soft grass, the nests are very dense.
The nests seem to be larger than they need to be and as I have mentioned before the reason for the massive nests are uncertain. One theory is that it may serve as an advertising tool to show that a specific area has been occupied, similar to a rhino midden. They are however not territorial and will not fight with other members of the specie over an area. The nests also offer great protection for both parents and offspring during bad weather conditions. They plaster the entrance tunnel and breeding chamber with mud brought by the male and applied by the female. The mud strengthens the nest and blocks holes to create an insulated chamber.
The same nest can be used annually if not disturbed. Both the male and female help with the incubation of on average 3 to 9 eggs. A pair of Hamerkops may often encounter problems from the likes of Barn owls, eagle owls, bees and more creatures that occasionally take over nests for their own use. When they leave however the pair of hamerkops could return and reuse the nest.
From a cultural perspective a Hamerkop is believed to possess burning power. The Zulu people believe that should a Hamerkop nest be abused or destroyed one’s own home will burn down within one day. The Kalahari Bushmen believed that if one would try to rob a Hamerkop nest you will be struck by lightning. So rather stay clear and take your pictures from a distance!
Hope some of you have learned something interesting about these awesome birds and will look differently at the Hamerkop when we cross the bridge next time. There are more to them than meets the eye! Keep on following us for more pictures, updates, blogs and information. Also keep an eye out for some videos from Ranger HULK (Pierre) and myself coming in the next days. Stay safe everybody!
By Ranger Jacques Marais