Chances are that you have seen this bird waiting patiently, perched on a wire, a tree or a telephone pole, with a water body or wetlands in sight. And in a quick flash of movement it swoops into the water, its exceptionally long red beak on a single-minded trajectory. Then, its mission accomplished, it flies away with its unfortunate victim flapping in its beak. The bird, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, is the kingfisher.
The kingfisher makes for a very attractive picture. The white-throated variety is bestowed with colourful plumage – bright blue wings, back and tail; chestnut coloured head and lower belly; white throat and breast. Medium sized, it has a large head and a red pointy bill, outstandingly long for its size.
About 90 kingfisher species exist in the world, with twelve of them found in India. The oriental dwarf kingfisher (14 cm) is one of the smallest, while the brown kingfisher (35 cm) and stork-billed kingfisher (35 cm) are some of the largest ones. The small blue kingfisher, pied kingfisher and blue-eared kingfisher are other common kingfisher species in south India.
The largest kingfisher in the world is the giant kingfisher, which is 48 cm in length. The heaviest kingfisher is the laughing kookaburra found in Australia, which weighs 450 gm. The African dwarf kingfisher is the smallest, with a length of 10 cm and weighing 9 gm.
There’s a large rain pool a few feet from my home. During summer it dries out and one by one all the migratory birds return to their homeland, except for the white-throated kingfisher, which extends its stay for another two or three months.
There’s no fish or crab then, and it survives on local invertebrates, small reptiles and insects.
It’s the last to leave, but the first to return, welcoming the south-west monsoon whose generosity makes the rain pool full.
Once, at 5.30 am, I peered through the darkness and slight mist and saw it sitting on a small tree stump, calling deeply and repeatedly for about 10 minutes.
Later I found it sitting alone under the shade of an acacia tree and then on the exposed mango tree trunks, turning its head around and always alert. Sometimes, it flew to the nearby mobile tower and watched the world pass by from its vantage point.
The arrival of the north-east monsoon in October changes the landscape and the rain pool is not only full, but it is lush green all around. Then I see the kingfisher on the acacia tree, all aglow in the light of the setting sun, with many other colourful birds like the yellow golden oriole, the blue-tailed bee eater, the common myna, the coppersmith barbet and the golden-flame back woodpecker. There is an abundance of food in the rain pool.
The kingfisher feeds on small crabs, molluscs, frogs, earthworms and small birds. From a distance of 50 m, it watches for movement in the water, suddenly swooping into the water and returning with a loud call ke ke ke. Unlike other kingfishers, they do not dive deep into the water and manage to catch food from just under the water surface. They have an excellent binocular vision and judge their prey accurately.
When I was watching it, the kingfisher caught a struggling crab in its dagger-like red beak. It beat the crab on the tree bark a dozen times to kill it before eating it. Strangely, offerings of bread, biscuits and fruit were left untouched.
The white-throated kingfisher flies straight and fast. I have not seen it walk or hop. Unlike other kingfishers, I have never seen it hovering above the water in our rain pool before diving into it. This bird can hold its own against many birds, although it is wary of the shikra, which sometimes steals its meal.
The male and female kingfishers look similar. Young ones appear duller than adults.
During the mating season, they sit on the acacia tree’s branches, raising and lowering their heads, flicking their tails, spreading their blue wings for a few seconds and being quite noisy. In the late afternoon, I see them sitting on a tree branch and diving into the water some metres away, then returning to the same perch and preening their feathers.
I watched them dive eight times in quick succession as if they were having a bath. In the intense summer of Chennai, when temperatures cross 40 degrees, I see the kingfisher sitting on a mango tree breathing fast with its mouth wide open to lower its body temperature.
They are wary of humans and fly off with a loud call to the farthest tree when they spot people.