The Hoopoe: Emissary of Kings, Secreter of Stink

The Hoopoe: Emissary of Kings, Secreter of Stink

It takes a special bird to incur the wrath of a legendary king. “I will punish him most severely,” rages King Solomon about the Hoopoe, in Chapter 27 of the Qu’ran, “or will kill him, unless he brings me a convincing excuse!”

The Hoopoe’s crime? It was late to some kind of ancient bird consortium, having spent the previous three months traveling the land without food or water, spreading the good news of Solomon to all who would listen—and gathering intel on the king's rivals. You'd think the Hoopoe might be given a pass after such an epic assignment, but Solomon ran a tight ship, and lateness, it seems, was a cardinal sin.

Despite its brief run-in with Solomon, or perhaps because of it, the Hoopoe has enjoyed a lofty status throughout history. Not only was it Solomon’s special messenger, it was also named the wisest bird in the world by the Persian poet Attar of Nishapur in his 1177 epic, The Conference of the Birds. But this pretty creature’s looks—not its brains—likely won over its many admirers across the years (and helped it nab the honor of becoming Israel's national bird).

Native to the grasslands, savannahs, and woodlands of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Madagascar, the Hoopoe (also called the Hudhud) is the only surviving member of the Hoopoe family. Its Latin name, which, like its English name is an onomatopoetic imitation of the bird’s cry, is extremely fun to say: Upupa epops. The Hoopoe bears a bright orange crest atop its fawn-colored head, and flies on a pair of elegant, zebra-striped wings. Its slender, gunmetal-colored beak—so strong it can be opened even when plunged into the ground in pursuit of insects—doubles as a weapon, and can bring the most brutal of territorial disputes to a grisly end, with males engaging in a bloody, mid-air beak-joust that sometimes leaves one party blinded, just as certain species of hummingbirds are known to do.

Wise, beautiful, and scrappy—the Hoopoe can't help but command respect. But as researchers from Iran's University of Isfahan point out in a recent paper, when the Hoopoe gets home, it leaves its dignity at the door: During breeding season, the female’s preening—or uropygial—gland, located under her thick, black-and-white tail feathers, swells dramatically. From this swollen node, the female expels generous amounts of a thick brown liquid that smells just like rotting meat, thanks to a notoriously malodorous compound within it called dimethyl-sulfide. Using her beak, the Hoopoe goes on to coat her feathers in this putrid goo, and if she has a newly laid clutch of eggs, she’ll coat them in it, too, making for a pretty repulsive nest situation.

However, what may at first appear to be a flagrant rejection of hygiene turns out to be quite the opposite. This uropygial secretion the Hoopoe smears all over herself is filled with fatty lipids and a waxy substance called sebum that actually make her feathers more flexible and waterproof. Furthermore, biologists from the Universidad de Granada in Spain discovered in 2006 that the substance also contains colonies of the bacterium Enterococcus faecalis, which is the natural predator of another bacterium, Bacillus licheniformis. And if you’re a bird, you DO NOT want B. licheniformis—this destructive microbe secretes enzymes that digest keratin, the protein that accounts for 90 percent of a feather's composition.

So it makes sense for the mother Hoopoe to coat her feathers in the stuff, but her eggs? The behavior puzzled scientists for many years, because eggs don’t need waterproofing, and their slippery surface didn’t appear to be particularly absorbent. But just last year, the team from Spain discovered microscopic pits on the surface of the eggshells, which serve to catch the mother’s bacteria-laden liquid as it seeps out of her posterior. "It seems that the microbes in the pits, and the antibiotics they produce, act as a living shield,” science writer Ed Yong explains in his blog, Phenomena. “They stop harmful bacteria from colonizing the eggs, and from traveling through pores in the shell to reach the chicks inside.”

About six days after hatching, the chicks follow suit and develop their own gross defense mechanisms: When threatened, they’ll turn their tails to face their enemy and squirt liquid feces in its general direction.

The Hoopoe may have its faults, but vanity doesn't appear to be among them. Yet something about the Hoopoe is still managing to upset the gods, even in the modern age. Last year, a massive tropical cyclone that happened to be named after the bird devastated local communities throughout eastern India and Nepal—and tore through Hoopoe nests on India’s eastern coast. Cyclone Hudhud ended up killing so many Hoopoes that local birdwatchers grew anxious about the species’ fate in the storm-affected areas. Fortunately, there’s no current concern for the future of the species, which is believed to be doing fine across its incredibly wide range. Thanks to its thoroughly nasty defenses and apparently serious espionage skills, this bird’s a survivor.