The Colorful Kingfisher
A FLASH of turquoise or electric blue dives into a stream and quickly emerges again, flapping into the air with a fish in its beak. This is often the first glimpse that people get of a kingfisher, a colorful bird with a relatively large head and beak. Despite the name, however, kingfishers are not all fish-eaters. Some species prefer lizards, snakes, crabs, or even insects—often catching the latter in flight. Moreover, only about a third of the world’s kingfishers live near water. Their habitats range from dense tropical forests to coral islands to deserts. One desert dweller is the red-backed kingfisher, which makes its home in the dry interior of Australia.
The species that do fish are masters of the art. Usually, the bird watches patiently from a perch. When it spots a fish, it tenses for the dive, instinctively factoring in the refraction of light, which seems to alter the position of the fish. Then the bird dives toward the water, beating its wings to give it speed. If the fish is near the surface, the bird may just pluck it up. Otherwise, it folds its wings back and shoots into the water like a dart. “The whole act is a display of extraordinary skill, performed without hesitation or fumble,” says the book The Life of Birds. Kingfishers are even capable of catching more than one fish at a time! And in cold regions some have been observed diving through thin ice to seize prey. In Australia the azure kingfisher has been seen snatching small aquatic animals that were disturbed by platypuses searching for food underwater in a river.
Courtship and Homemaking
Kingfisher courtship rituals can be quite entertaining. Some species pair up in aerial chases, after which the male displays his nest-digging skills. Rituals may also include feeding—the male advertising his worthiness by offering the female a tasty morsel.
Kingfishers do not construct typical bird’s nests. Some make their home in a chamber at the end of a tunnel that they may excavate in a bank, ditch, or gravel pit. Others set up house in a rabbit burrow or in a hole in a tree.
In order to construct an earthen chamber, a kingfisher may excavate a tunnel two or three feet [1 m] long. Getting it started, though, can be a challenge. Several species address the problem by flying straight at the bank with their bill outstretched—a high-risk strategy that can stun or even kill a bird! In the tropical rain forests of New Guinea and northern Australia, the paradise kingfisher commonly excavates a hole in a termite nest. The insects seem to put up with the intrusion, repairing the damage once the birds vacate after breeding.
Parenting can also be hard work for kingfishers. An observer in Africa saw one pair deliver between 60 and 70 fish every day to their five nestlings, besides feeding themselves. In one instance a male successfully reared its brood even though its mate had died four days before the young hatched. In some species other nonbreeding birds help the parents incubate the eggs and later tend to the young.
From Ireland to the Solomon Islands
The common kingfisher has a vast range that stretches from Ireland in the northwest across Europe and Russia to the Solomon Islands in the southeast. Since its territory includes regions where freezing conditions occur in winter, it is one of the few species that migrate, some for nearly 2,000 miles [3,000 km]. A good number of common kingfishers, as well as the pied kingfisher and the white-throated kingfisher, can be found in Israel by the Sea of Galilee and along the Jordan River. Jesus Christ likely observed those handsome birds and their ways.—See the box “Observe Intently the Birds of Heaven.”
A particularly well-known kingfisher is Australia’s laughing kookaburra. About 17 inches [43 cm] long and equipped with a powerful 3-inch [8 cm] beak, this largely brown species is a familiar garden bird in the land down under. Known for its fiendish “laughter,” the kookaburra is a fearless hunter whose diet includes snakes up to three feet [1 m] long!a
Although kingfishers have few natural enemies, their numbers decline when rivers become polluted or forest habitats are destroyed. Indeed, approximately 25 kingfisher species are classified in categories ranging from near threatened to critically endangered. Hopefully, conservation efforts will help to preserve these beautiful and often entertaining birds.
a The related blue-winged kookaburra, found across northern Australia, does not “laugh.”
[Box/Picture on page 17]
“OBSERVE INTENTLY THE BIRDS OF HEAVEN”
Jesus Christ was a careful observer of the natural world, often using his observations in well-thought-out illustrations that taught moral and spiritual truths. For example, Jesus said: “Observe intently the birds of heaven, because they do not sow seed or reap or gather into storehouses; still your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth more than they are?” (Matthew 6:26) What a touching lesson in God’s love for his human creation!
[Picture on page 16]