Being the most well-known kingfisher of Bengal, the White-breasted Kingfisher is simply called Machranga in Bangla. Had it not been the state bird of West Bengal, it could have easily become the national bird of Bangladesh
A White-breasted Kingfisher has been visiting our neighbourhood since the dreadful days of Covid-19 lockdown two years before. It turns up often and perches on cable, wall, fence or poles in this claustrophobic concrete jungle. Sometimes it goes down to the ground fleetingly to grab a little bug or worm in the grass and returns to its perch in a flash.
Of the 12 species of kingfishers of our country, the White-breasted Kingfisher is the only one that can live well away from water. This is feasible because it feeds less on fish and more on moving packs of meat such as worms, insects, lizards, rats, frogs, snakes, etc. No wonder it is the most widespread kingfisher of Bangladesh as well as the entire subcontinent.
The scavengers such as mynas and starlings, clearly, do not care to share the bugs with the Kingfisher. They, however, refrain from arguing with the bird, which brandishes a dagger-like bill coupled with a lot of intimidating staring. The very purpose of the bright orange colour of the Kingfisher's bill is to discourage silly starlings from initiating quarrels that are no good for them.
The resident gang of House Crows, the real owners of our gutters and garbage dumps are least daunted by the Kingfisher's bill, stare and aplomb. They do let the Kingfisher have its way for some time, but soon become jealous of the elegant presence and start flying over it aggressively. That signals the Kingfisher that its time is up. In disgust, it leaves with a loud cry "Ki-ki-ki-ki-ki".
We are always a little livid to see the colourful Kingfisher driven off our neighbourhood by the marauding crows. Once driven off, the noble Kingfisher does not return to the same spot the same day. We usually see the Kingfisher there once again in a few days' time. The proud bird probably needs days to forget a rude send off.
Crows are fine birds and we are happy to let them live as our perennial neighbours but we also appreciate an occasional flash of glowing colours: orange bill, pink feet, blue wings, indigo tail, brown flanks, etc. Other than all the colours, we also love the distinctive snow-white bib the Kingfisher hangs on his throat and breast.
Admiration for the colour, elegance and grace of a Kingfisher has been best attested by Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate who wrote the famed book of poems titled Crow. In a poem on the Kingfisher he indulgently wrote:
The Kingfisher perches. He studies.
Now he's vanished-into vibrations.
A sudden electric wire, jarred rigid,
Snaps-with a blue flare.
Blue flare is what we really see whenever the Kingfisher takes off abruptly. Usually its blue wings are folded and well hidden under the scapulars. From the side the bird looks mostly brown with an imposing orange beak. The big blue back, tail and wings show up only when the Kingfisher is airborne. That explains why it is called Neela Machhrala or blue kingfisher in northwest India.
Being the most well-known kingfisher of Bengal the White-breasted Kingfisher is simply called Machranga in Bangla. It is the state bird of West Bengal; otherwise it could easily have become the national bird of Bangladesh. To us it has always been 'The Kingfisher' and did not need to be identified by its colour or any other feature.
This week our neighbourhood has been nearly as quiet as the days of lockdown, thanks to the week-long holidays. The oppressive heat radiating from the city's bitumen and concrete is also keeping the people indoors. We came to find the gorgeous Kingfisher sitting still on a bamboo pole by a waterhole.
Has our Kingfisher turned up today to hunt a fish for a change? Or, is it zeroing in on the tadpoles in the waterhole? It dove in the water. But it is a shallow dive aimed at nothing. It stayed afloat for a while and spanked with his wings to splash the water about it. The Kingfisher is obviously taking a bath; not down there to stab a fish or tadpole.
We know that the White-breasted Kingfisher seeks out water more for taking bath than hunting fish. It surely needs water more, not less, in this frying pan of a city in May, in spite of the occasional cooling Kal-Boishakhi storms. We are awfully lucky to see the relaxed and contented face of the Kingfisher floating in this waterhole.
After a little while the Kingfisher had enough of the blissful bath and took off vertically from the waterhole with water streaming out of his wings in torrents. In no time its water-resistant feathers were nearly dry and ready to do the job of flying high up to the overhead electric cable.
At its high perch the Kingfisher violently shook its body to get rid of the last drop of water clinging to the fluffy down-feathers. That single jiggle suddenly created a miniature rain around it for a brief period. The glorious bird looked rather pleased with the mist it produced around it. We were fortunate to be right there to get a snapshot of the bemused bird in the rain of its own making.
For a brief period in the nineteenth century the White-breasted Kingfishers were hunted for their beautiful blue feathers. Those feathers adorned the ladies' hats in Europe. We wonder if any lady using such a hat ever shook her head after running in from a drizzle and looked mystified at the tiny rain the feathers created!
Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.First Published in The Business Standard.
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