The Hamerkops of Pagel House in Aberdeen

A guest house in Aberdeen called Pagel House is famous for its unusual circus history. But it also has some intriguing residents, known as hamerkops.

By Julienne du Toit

Pictures by Chris Marais

Lyn Dugmore of Pagel House in Aberdeen has a not-so-secret joy. It is watching the pair of breeding hamerkop birds that nest in a huge old willow tree in her garden.

Hamerkops are best known for their distinctive shape – fairly large birds with a hammer-shaped heads – and their insanely enormous nests. The nests are typically 1.5 metres in diameter and height, are so sturdy they can carry the weight of a human. The entrance is usually to near the bottom, leading to a tunnel and then a nest chamber.

Very few people have the privilege of hamerkop frontage. Lyn loves watching them from her back stoep while having coffee in the morning or late afternoon.

Even though they have been there for five years, this hamerkop couple is very shy. But they’re not unusual in that. All hamerkops are wary of humans.

Lyn has watched this couple raise generations of chicks, and has had the privilege of witnessing their odd rituals. For example, their mating behaviour involves perching repeatedly on another’s backs, sometimes the male on top, other times the female. Sometimes they face back to front. They also run side by side, making hysterical sounding calls that sound, according to one birding source, like ‘yip-purring’.

Other things Lyn has observed:

  • When leivoor (furrow) water floods the garden, the hamerkops ‘foot-tremble’ their half-webbed feet, agitating little goggas to the surface to be eaten;
  • When the youngsters emerge from the nest they are often almost the same size as the adults. “The one way you can tell the difference is that the adults are nervous of humans and the babies are not.”
  • A baby hamerkop that had broken its leg managed to heal and lived a normal life without any human interference;
  • Hamerkops abandon their enormous, carefully built nests every few years and build another one.

But not everyone loves having hamerkops around. They are messy nesters, so fastidious gardeners don’t love them.

Elsewhere they are regarded with fear and respect.

The Kalahari Bushmen used to call them lightning birds, and firmly believed that anyone robbing a hamerkop nest would be struck down.

In the Zulu culture there is a belief that hamerkops have a ‘burning power’ and that anyone tampering with or destroying a hamerkop nest would have their home mysteriously burn down.

Some people in the Eastern Cape say the sight of a hamerkop bird foretells rain.

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