The name of the hamerkop, Scopus umbretta, comes from the Afrikaans words 'hammer' and 'head' and refers to its appearance, which is similar to that of the shoebill heron. In Xhosa and Zulu it is referred to as Uthekwane – the Lightning bird.
In traditional folklore, the Lightning Bird is a man-size creature with an insatiable appetite for blood and a penchant for seducing vulnerable young women. This mythological creature is able to summon lightning and thunder at will, and is said to appear disguised as a hamerkop on occasion.
Kalahari bushman believe that you will be struck by lightning if you destroy a hamerkop's nest, and punished by the gods if you kill one of them. It is referred to as an 'evil' bird in Malagasy literature, and thought to cause leprosy should you mess with its nest. A hamerkop flying over a Xam village is thought to be an announcement of death. While none of these legends are very complimentary, they have resulted in the hamerkop enjoying an unofficial protected status amongst local tribes wherever it occurs.
Hamerkops are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar and coastal southwest Arabia in wetland habitats. It is a common resident of the Kruger National Park area, although not endemic.
The nest of the hamerkop is a work of art - an elaborate structure assembled against a wall, in the fork of a tree, or even on the ground. The nests measure 1.5 m across, built of thousands of small sticks, stuck together with mud, decorated with any brightly coloured objects the bird can find, and strong enough to support a man's weight. All this to house a pair of 500g birds that are only about 56cms in length. They are compulsive builders, constructing up to 5 nests in a season and then picking the best one to lay their eggs in.
They mate for life, but will take another partner if their mate dies, and are occasionally seen in pairs hunting for shrimp, frogs, tadpoles and small fish in the wetlands. Males and females are identical, bearing dull brown plumage splashed with purple iridescence on the back, large wide wings, partially webbed feet and the long toes of a wading bird.
This unusual looking bird is capable of equally unusual behaviour, ask your ranger to explain some of its quirks to you if you should spot one while waiting at a waterhole.