Hamerkops, avian architects

WHEN a pair of Hamerkops (Fundi Chuma) started building a nest on my garden everybody in the compound was ecstatic.

“This is a gift from God (zawadi kutoka kwa Mungu); they cannot build a nest in a place without usalama (security). This is very very lucky!” We felt as if we were being blessed,” they said.

Hamerkops are known to build their nests and raise chicks year-round. The pair in my garden/ nature reserve started building their nest in April, during the rainy season. Their chosen site was a broad fork in a large Ficus sur (Mkuyu) tree. From their top of their nest, they can watch over the entire nature preserve, including the vernal pool, which during the rainy season is full of the Hamerkops’ preferred food: frogs and tadpoles. I imagine they felt content at the thought of raising young near such a promising food supply.

I watched in amazement as the Hamerkops built a huge structure. They started by gathering sodden and dead leaves from the ground, when the light was low in the early mornings and early evenings. The birds carried and laid down layers of sodden leaves with their beaks to make a wide base in the fork of the tree.

When the muddy leaves dried a thick hard mass was formed. By June they were laying sticks on top of the foundation, in such away that a chamber was formed, with the sticks at the foundation, and then more for the walls and finally for a roof! After the chamber was framed, they covered the structure with more muddy leaves.

The nest became an oval ball more than meter tall.  I have read that a Hamerkop’s nest can weigh half a ton and a human being can stand on top of it!! The nest took months to complete, but during the whole process they kept a steady pace, seemed confident, and made strange appealing noises, communicating with each other.

Not long after the main construction was complete, I noticed unexpected objects were appearing on the outside of the nest, as if they were trying to make the home not only impressive but beautiful.

A bright red towel appeared; some CD disks, and other things we couldn’t quite see.  My neighbor Ireen came over to chat, and while chatting she told me that her tenant was complaining that clothes were missing from the clothes line. We checked the Hamerkops’ nest using binoculars.

And sure enough, we spied a pair of red lace panties, decorating the nest like a small flag! The panties were too high up to recover safely, so they remained on the nest for months. For all we know, more garments were inside, making the nest soft in preparation for the eggs and babies to come.

At the same time my neighbor, Ireen noticed the CD disks now hanging on the Hamerkops’ nest were those missing from her tree. She had placed them to scare away birds and bats from the fruits. Instead of being scared the Hamerkops found them intriguing and useful, perhaps for the same reason!

In September one chick emerged from the nest.  He/ she spent about 4 days on the ground, unable to fly. During the day it walked around the garden. The Hamerkop chick spent time several times a day at the cooking fire, near the guards. He wasn’t afraid of them at all. When they dozed, he liked to stand nearby them and doze also.

Even on the first day out of the nest the chick was searching for food – flicking up leaves to see if there were any tidbits underneath, sweeping water surfaces with its bill. He was waiting for the parents, who were away for hours at a time. The parents came to feed the little one periodically, and encouraged it to fly. Sometimes one of the parents perched nearby, but usually they were away. They hid the chick during the night amongst tree roots and in sunken areas.

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