The world of kingfishers

Geetha Iyer

“Talk less, Fisher Blue! Keep your kindly wishes
Fly off and preen yourself with the bones of fishes!”

– Tom Bombadil (Adventures of Tom Bombadil by J R R Tolkein)

kingfisher We take certain creatures around us for granted and hardly pay any attention to them. Like the kingfisher, for example. You might ask what is there to know about them. Do you know that there are 90 different types of kingfishers found worldwide? Or that there are 12 different kinds to be found in India? A pair of pied kingfishers have been around my house for the past two months and their chatter has been quite interesting. Their presence made me look at the world of kingfishers more closely and I came to know so much that I have now started looking out for them and the time spent has been nothing but pure pleasure. I am sharing some of these learnings with you in this piece. It’s not possible to describe all the 12 species found in India in this limited space and so I have chosen to dwell upon the more commonly seen ones.

Kingfisher facts
Ask anyone and they are bound to tell you that kingfishers only eat fish and do so by diving into the water. But not so. Kingfishers are generalized feeders who will eat anything from insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, termites, and even snakes, lizards or other small vertebrates. Basically they will eat any creature they can catch and kill. Surprising, isn’t it? Names – common or scientific – can be quite misleading. There are three families of kingfishers. The small kingfishers belong to Family Alcedinidae. The pied kingfishers to Family Cerylidae. The species belonging to these two families are experts at diving and feeding on fishes. The third family Halcyonidae comprise the large tree kingfishers which occupy a wide range of habitats – from rain forests to woodlands to scrublands and some even our backyards – and feed on a wide variety of prey. The Australian kookaburra is a tree kingfisher.

The blue colour of the bird’s feathers are not due to the presence of special pigments in them but is the result of the layers in feathers reflecting only the blue wavelengths of light. Compare the image of the collared kingfisher given here with one on page 51. Observe the next time you see the bird and you will find that the degree of blue that you will see in the kingfisher changes depending on the position you are observing it from and the extent of illumination falling on the bird. Thus as the bird flies the colours will appear indigo, or royal blue, or other shades of blue to sometimes even shades of green.

The author is a consultant for science and environment education. She can be reached at scopsowl@gmail.com.

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