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Kingfisher: The king of good times

Updated October 25, 2020 20:28 IST
kingfisher
Pied kingfisher diving for a fish and a white breasted kingfisher with prey (Photographs: (Left) Kamal Sahansi and (Right) Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

Today, let me ask you one question—what’s the connection between the kingfisher bird and the bullet train of Japan? It’s a million dollar question.

The booming sound preceding a bullet train, which is going like 300 kms per hour, was creating a major nuisance for the Japanese people living nearby. One of engineers working on the project was a bird watcher, who had witnessed a common kingfisher bird cutting through the air, going into water without a splash and finding its prey. It was a Eureka moment! He got the idea and applied this principle to the front of the bullet train, shaping it like the kingfisher’s head and face.

The train did move without creating any boom sound and also ended up saving 10-15% of energy because it was more aerodynamic. The new kingfisher beak style trains produce 30% less air pressure, use 15% less electricity and are 10% faster. The drop in air pressure not only makes the trains quieter, but more comfortable for passengers. The Japanese bullet trains are some of the fastest and largest in the world, and it’s interesting to think that they are based on the adaptations of one small bird–the kingfisher!

Common Kingfisher
The Common Kingfisher (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

Kingfishers fly low and straight like bullets, reaching up to 25 miles per hour, but it’s not their speed that excites scientists; it’s their beaks. Sharp, pointed, and so long that they make up a third of a kingfisher’s height, these beaks slice soundlessly through water, meaning that the kingfishers can dive into pools without alerting fish. This wonderful creature, sights a fish from it’s perch, makes a dive into the water, without scaring the fish and flies back to the perch victorious.

One fine morning last month, we decided to sit by the river bank and watched it fish. For us, it was an amazing sight to watch the pied-kingfisher, swooping down on the fish. It is an amazing sight to watch the bird, swoop down spectacularly and come up with a fish in its beak. “Only those who enjoy birding and have watched a pied kingfisher feed know who is the king of the water. The black-and-white bird with an intricate face pattern makes for a striking sight,” says veteran wildlife photographer Kamal Sahansi.

When they catch a fish, they casually toss fish into the air to reposition it for swallowing head first. They sometimes beat big fish to break their spine, which might otherwise cause harm to the bird when swallowing. The pied kingfisher fishes in fresh water bodies and is a fairly common bird to spot. Its black and white plumage, crest and the habit of hovering over clear lakes and rivers before diving for fish makes it distinctive.

Pied Kingfisher with Fish

But all kingfishers are not black and white. In the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, I saw two kingfishers, but were very different from each other. “One is a common kingfisher and the other one is a white-throated kingfisher,” told my guide, Raju. The first one had a flash of electric blue, that’s as intimately as most people will ever know the common kingfisher. Contrary to the name, this little fellow is not as common as compared to it’s larger cousin the white-throated kingfisher. Due to its preferred habitat, it is also known as ‘river kingfisher’. Like all kingfishers, the common kingfisher is highly territorial. Since it must eat around 60% of its body weight each day, it is essential to have control of a suitable stretch of river.

The other was the white-throated kingfisher fresh with a kill. It was tossing the prey before swallowing it.

Long associated with peace and calm, 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. 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.

He may be a Kingfisher, but he’s an equal opportunities’ assassin who’s egalitarian in the species he chooses to knock off. The bulk of his prey consists of beetles, rats, small snakes, lizards, scorpions, centipedes and anybody small enough to be disposed with a sharp thrust of his heavy blade. It is widely distributed over the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia, and certain parts of the Gulf.

Common Kingfisher on a tree
Common Kingfisher on a tree (Photo: Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha)

Flamboyant and jazzy, these kingfishers are deadly assassins. Like all fishermen, kingfishers are patient, waiting for hours on telephone poles or electric wires, reeds, trees and rooftops, waiting in happy anticipation of their victims to show up.

There are roughly 90 species of kingfishers in the world, divided into three categories—river kingfishers, tree kingfishers and water kingfishers. All of these have large heads, long sharp pointed bills, short legs, and stubby tails. There are around a dozen species of these glamorous birds found in India. Ah, a dirty dozen you might think—not really, more, a deadly dozen. These assassins are vulnerable but some of them are in the critically endangered list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They are threatened by human activities, habitat loss, forest clearance, degradation of environment and polluted rivers. Across the kingfisher’s range, wherever rivers are healthy, fish will swim. And where the fish go, the flashy little bird with the sassy whistle is likely to follow.

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