The Hoopoe (Upupa epops) breeding habitat was in good condition before forestry management started in Central Europe.
The Hoopoe had ideal conditions to breed with orchards, meadows, wooded vineyards and open forests. The main distribution of this bird was from the south to the east of Europe.
With the beginning of forestation of nutrient-poor soil in the 19th century, many biotopes disappeared. It declined in the 20th century with the growing livestock farming and the draining of meadows. Furthermore, the meadows became bigger because farmers started to use mineral fertilizer and liquid manure to fertilise the new fields. Fast growing grass needed to get mowed fast and this activity destroyed the foraging grounds of Hoopoes. Also, the use of insecticides in the fields, polluted the soil Eventually the insects that Hoopoes feed on and fed the chicks on created abnormalities in the eggs and health of the birds, this happened mainly in the 1960's.
Not only the insecticides where having negative effects on Hoopoe populations, but also the breeding grounds of the Hoopoe was changing. The hoopoe is a cavity breeder and needs holes in big trees and in walls. Old fruit trees and big thick willows which are good breeding places for this bird were removed from the landscape. The destruction of orchards and the change in which fruit trees were managed from low-stem trees to high-stem trees left no cavities in trees where Hoopoe can breed.
Only few pairs of Hoopoe survived in Rheinland-Pfalz till the 1980's. All of them used holes in walls to breed instead of trees. Although more than 100 pairs of Green woodpeckers (Picus vidris) were drilling nesting holes in trees still the Hoopoes were not utilising these cavities.
Due to a very successful Hoopoe protection project in Rheinland-Pfalz, Christian Stange started with NABU and BUND to build wood boxes on trees at Kaiserstuhl. However, the competition for the Hoopoe was tough with other cavity breeders like starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), great tits (Parus major), tree sparrows (Passer montanus), hornets (Vespa), wesps (Vespinae) and bees (Apiformes) were also using these wooden nest boxes.
In 1986 the team started to build the wooden nestboxes inside cabins in vineyards. The team had a huge success! In 1980 they had the first brood of Hoopoes. They started to create a symmetric net system of 140 nest boxes on 41,6km2 vineyards in Kaiserstuhl. (+60 breeding boxes between Tuniberg and the Black Forest). Next to the breeding cabins they installed other small nest boxes for other birds to breed in to avoid competition .
In all this years, most of the Hoopoes used these nest boxes. Just a few Hoopoes used Little Owl (Athene noctua) nest boxes and only one pair used a natural hole made by a Green Woodpecker in a fruit tree.
However, to save the Hoopoe population for a longer period of time, not only the breeding habitat has to improve but also the biotope! Therefore they started to reuse the old orchards and bought or rent the most important old orchards areas in Kaiserstuhl. The biotope gets used again and the mowed grass got removed. They also planted more than 500 new fruit trees and intentionally created cavities in old trees to create natural nesting holes for Hoopoes.
Not only this protection project by Christian Stange, NABU and BUND helped the hoopoe population, it also helped the overall management of the vineyards. In the 1980's, the vinegrowers started to leave the passages between the vines and vineyards green. This was really of benefit for the hoopoes as it created suitable feeding grounds. Before 1980, the vinegrowers ploughed the soil between the vines and this did not give any chance to insects and other invertebrates to flourish. The most important prey for the hoopoes in Kaiserstuhl is: mole crickets (Gryllotalpidae), caterpillars of owlet moths (Noctuidae), scarabs of cockchafer (Melolontha) and summer chafer (Amphimallon). All this prey is perfect food for the hoopoes and allow them to have two broods a year!
Exploring the protection project of hoopoe
Because most of the vineyards in Central Europe have the same type of vine cultivation methods, there is a possibility that other organisations or persons can try similar projects with probable success in other countries or regions of Central Europe. Beside projects in Baden-Württemberg (Germany) other similar projects started in Elsass (France), Switzerland and Austria.
Furthermore it is very important for a project of this size to have good support! Without the help of volunteers, NABU or BUND for the tree-cutting work, the maintenance and management of the biotope as well as the financial support, it would have been impossible that this project will be successful as it is.
This article is writing in comperation with Christian Stange
Autor: Charel Klein