In Our Backyard Environment

Why the white throated kingfisher isn't like any other kingfisher

The white throated kingfisher   | Photo Credit: Abhishek Gulshan

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, you may hear a jarring incessant trill, the ‘ki…ki…ki…ki of the white-throated kingfisher. Long associated with peace and calm, the bird, also known as the white-breasted kingfisher, is as serene and beautiful to look at as its reputation suggests. It belongs to the genus Halcyon, which, according to legend, is a mythical bird which nests on the sea and is loved by the gods. It calms the waves as it breeds, bringing in halcyon or peaceful days.

The white-throated kingfisher is easily identifiable because of its electric bluish-green tinged back and upper wings. It is large-headed, predominantly chestnut-brown, with a long, heavy, and pointed dark dull-red bill, and a conspicuous white throat extending across the breast. The males and females are identical.

In the face of extreme fragmentation of habitat, this bird is known to adapt well. It is widely distributed over the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia, and certain parts of the Gulf.

The breeding season lasts from March to July, and two to seven eggs are laid in small tunnels, mud banks of rivers, nullahs (sewers) and sometimes in decaying trees. As responsible parents, they make multiple trips to feed the young.

While most kingfishers are described purely as water-birds living chiefly on fish, this one breaks kingfisher stereotypes by preferring wooded country, rarely diving into water (for fish) and feeding voraciously on insects, reptiles, rodents, amphibians, and such small prey. From elevated perches (electric poles and lines, walls) that serve as a vantage point, it swoops down on its prey. In certain situations, it has also been observed hunting smaller birds like the common tailorbird, and sparrow.

While the bird can be found in our backyards, it is often found on riverbanks, wetlands, paddy fields, groves, open jungles, dry cultivation zones, and in gardens. Near the water, it occasionally dives for fish, but mostly uses its hunting prowess for frogs, tadpoles, and water insects.

It was Thomas C. Jerdon, a British physician, zoologist, botanist and a Surgeon Major in the East India Company, who reported this atypical behaviour of the white-throated kingfisher in his 1862 book Birds of India. Jerdon was also an eminent ornithologist and several bird species like the Jerdon’s Nightjar, Jerdon’s Bushlark have been named after him.

It can be reasoned that this behaviour is an evolutionary trait of surviving on prey other than the fish. However, why this bird is so different from others of its kind remains a mystery.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme at WWF India.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2020 2:11:23 PM |

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