Woodhoopoes: Phoeniculidae

views updated

WOODHOOPOES: Phoeniculidae



Woodhoopoes (WOOD-huu-puuz) are small- to medium-sized birds. Some species have a long, slender decurved, slightly bent, bill; others have straight bills; and still others have greatly down-curved bills. They have plumage, feathers, that is mainly black with glossy green or purple undertones; and have broad, rounded wings and a long, graduated, divided in steps of different lengths, tail. Some species have a white or brown head. Most species have patches, either bars or spots, of white across the wing and on the tips of the tail feathers. Woodhoopoes have long toes, short legs, and strong, thick hooked claws. They have dark brown irises, colored part, within their eyes. Females usually have shorter bills and tails than males, and young birds are duller in color than adults. Juveniles of all species have bills and feet that are black. In three species, the bill turns orange-red as they mature, as do the feet in two species. Adults are 8 to 15 inches (20 to 38 centimeters) long and weigh between 0.6 and 3.5 ounces (18 and 99 grams).


Woodhoopoes range throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with a small number of birds in northeast Africa. They are one of the few bird families that are confined to Africa.


Woodhoopoes live in rainforests, forests, woodland, savannas (flat grassland), thornbush country, and arid steppes (dry plains that are often grass-covered) that contain adequate amounts of scattered trees. They avoid treeless areas, and only two species occur in the more northern areas of tropical forests. Woodhoopoes require areas that are heavily forested in order to roost and nest in tree holes, and to use its bark and twigs to hide their food.


They eat invertebrates, animals without a backbone, mainly insects and arachnids, eight-legged animals that includes spiders, scorpions, and mites, and their larvae (LAR-vee), active immature insects; along with some fruits and small vertebrates, animals with a backbone. Probing into crevices, narrow openings, and cracks, or prying off bark on the trunks and limbs of trees are their means of locating prey. Strong feet allow woodhoopoes to hunt at all angles, including hanging upside down, with the tail used as a brace. Larger species tend to search on larger branches; species with thicker, straighter bills dig and pry more often; and smaller species probe into the smallest holes on the smallest of twigs. Some species will also feed on the ground or catch flying insects in midair. Woodhoopoes do not drink water on a regular basis because they receive most of their needed moisture from their prey.


Smaller-sized species of woodhoopoes are somewhat sedentary, tending not to migrate, but larger species tend to migrate more. Some larger species live in groups of five to twelve birds, making themselves noticeable when they interrupt their eating to make noisy sounds among the group. After a short period of time, they quietly return to foraging, searching for food. The small species tend to live only as pairs. All birds defend their territory with loud cackling calls, exaggerated bowing of the body, and rising of the tail. Such cackling sounds helps to maintain the identity and togetherness of the group, which usually consists of an extended family of parents, helpers, and young. Their broad, rounded wings and long, graduated tail allow skillful and, at times, rapid flights.

Woodhoopoes nest in tree cavities. Most cavities are natural holes, but old nest holes previously dug out by barbets and woodpeckers are also used. Barbets are small tropical birds that are brightly colored, with a large head, thick hairy bill, short rounded wings, and short tail; related to the toucan. They rarely use holes in the ground or in buildings. Nests are unlined. Mating pairs are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus), having only one mate. A male will feed the breeding female as a courtship ritual. Such feeding will continue throughout the nesting period, along with feedings from helpers. The female lays and incubates, sits on to provide warmth, a clutch, group of eggs hatched together, of two to five gray or blue-green eggs that are oval and pitted. The incubation period is seventeen to eighteen days, with a nestling period, time necessary to take care of young, of about thirty days. The female hatches the young chicks but later leaves and helps the others bring the chicks food. The nestlings have a prickly appearance due to growing feathers. Juveniles stay with the parents for several months after fledging, growing the feathers needed for flight, and sometimes act as helpers.


Woodhoopoes have no known significant importance to humans.


Woodhoopoes are not threatened. In some areas, woodhoopoes have been reduced by the collection of timber for fuel and building material.


Physical characteristics: Green woodhoopoes, considered the largest of the woodhoopoes, are primarily black in color with variable green and purple glossy overtones. They have a blue head and throat; violet on the back of the neck; white spots on their flight feathers and at the tip of its tail; a white bar across the middle of the wings; and red bill and feet, with bills being black in some populations. They have short, strong legs and sharp claws for gripping bark firmly. The long, graduated tail is used, either closed or spread, as a support.

Green woodhoopoe bills are long, slender, and slightly curved. The bill of males is longer than that of females, with a male weight about 18 to 20 percent more than females. Juveniles do not contain iridescence, glossy, colors like the adults, and have short dark bills and dark feet. Most juvenile males and some females have brown or buff throats, with smaller number of tail spots than what are found on adults. Adults are 13 to 15 inches (32 to 37 centimeters) long and weigh between 2.0 and 3.5 ounces (54 and 99 grams).

Geographic range: Green woodhoopoes are one of the most widespread of all woodhoopoes. They range throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Habitat: Green woodhoopoes are found in open woodlands, savannas, palm groves, along rivers within forests, wooded gardens, and dry, mixed scrublands that contain at least a few larger trees. They are found from near sea level to altitudes well over 6,560 feet (2,000 meters). Green woodhoopoes must live in areas that contain large enough trees, except for thick rainforests, in order to find cavities for roosting and nesting. They are not found in arid zones and dense forests.

Diet: Green woodhoopoes eat caterpillars, beetle larvae, spiders and spider eggs, adult and larval moths, and winged and un-winged termites. They occasionally eat centipedes, millipedes, small lizards, and small fruits. They are well suited for climbing on tree trunks and branches in search for food. Most often, they forage by probing within cracks or bark of tree trunks, branches, and twigs. Males search lower down on the tree, while females tend to forage higher where smaller branches, limbs, and twigs are located. Sometimes green woodhoopoes dig in animal dung found on the ground, catch insets in flight, or steal food from nests of other species. Prey is often pounded and rubbed against a branch before being eaten.

Behavior and reproduction: Green woodhoopoes are territorial birds. They live in social groups, often in groups of four to eight members, but occasionally in much larger groups of up to sixteen birds. They often follow one another in single file in short flights from one tree to another. Green woodhoopoes will often exchange food as part of their social behavior. They are frequently noisy birds, often defending their territory with loud cackling calls; rapid, exaggerated bowing movements; and strong movements of the tail up and down.

Breeding activities can occur in every month, but are more frequent in months that are wet. They will often nest in tree holes, either natural or old woodpecker holes, but sometimes in the ground. When nests occur in trees, the nest is usually up to 72 feet (22 meters) above the ground. When the weather is abnormally wet, usually in late summer, they will nest in buildings. The female will lay two to five eggs, and then incubate them for seventeen to eighteen days. The nestling period lasts about thirty days. Adult and juvenile helpers will assist the mating pair in feeding and other duties.

Green woodhoopoes and people: People and green woodhoopoes have little significance to each other. However, the birds are often found in gardens and parks.

Conservation status: Green woodhoopoes are not threatened. They are widespread and common throughout their range, including a number of large national parks. ∎



del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliott, Jordi Sargatal, Jose Cabot, et al., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1992.

Dickinson, Edward C., ed. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, 3rd ed. Princeton, NJ and Oxford, U.K.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Forshaw, Joseph, ed. Encyclopedia of Birds, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998.

Fry, C. Hilary, and Kathie Fry. Kingfishers, Bee-Eaters and Rollers: A Handbook. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Harrison, Colin James Oliver. Birds of the World. London, U.K. and New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.

Perrins, Christopher M., and Alex L. A. Middleton, eds. The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Facts on File, 1985.

Stattersfield, Allison J., and David R. Capper, eds. Threatened Birds of the World: The Official Source for Birds on the IUCN Red List. Cambridge, U.K.: BirdLife International, 2000.