There is a little bird with a loud, machine-gun-like call that has caught the attention of many visitors to the San Diego Zoo’s Scripps Aviary. With a dark, metallic blue body and a bright red bill, the quirky green woodhoopoe Phoeniculus purpureus is a colorful character in more than one way. Woodhoopoes are known for being loud, curious, and intelligent. What’s lesser known about this species, though, is even more fascinating!
Green woodhoopoes seem to have an almost comical need to feed other birds. You might say, “What’s so amazing about that? Most birds feed their mates and their young.” And right you are! But what I’m talking about goes way beyond just feeding a mate and offspring.
A few years ago, we had two male woodhoopoes in adjoining cages. They would talk with each other and sit near each other, separated by the wire of their enclosures. One day, Male A was to be moved into another aviary to get a mate and, we hoped, become a dad. To catch Male A, we tried luring him by putting his food into a catch box. Instead of having to go into the catch to get his own food, though, Male A simply called out and Male B passed his own food through the wire to his waiting friend! As you can imagine, it took some extra effort to catch Male A.
We finally caught Male A and moved him into the Scripps Aviary to await his new mate. While he was waiting, the curious woodhoopoe wasted no time getting to know his new bird neighbors. He apparently felt like our resident blue-breasted kingfisher needed some extra nourishment, because the woodhoopoe started bringing food to his new friend. In the wild, kingfishers sometimes feed their mate, but I can’t imagine what our kingfisher thought about this “friendly” bird trying to cram bugs into his face! Many times I’ve seen the woodhoopoe fly down to a pan, grab a cricket, and fly off in search of his buddy who, in Male A’s mind, must be starving! Male A eventually left the kingfisher alone…but only after he met the new female woodhoopoe, who appreciated all of his hard work. Male A became a devoted mate and subsequently a devoted father. He may not have “brought home the bacon,” but he definitely brought home the crickets.
If that were the end of the story, I might think that maybe Male A and Male B were just oddballs. But a year has gone by since Male A’s story, and we have a new woodhoopoe in Scripps Aviary, Male C, who has a tale all of his own. Stay tuned for the next installment where I’ll share Male C’s story and talk about the green woodhoopoe’s interesting breeding strategy, one that may shed some light on why these birds may have such interesting feeding behaviors.
Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Flamingo Round-up: Inside Look.