The lonely kingfisher in the city

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Stork-billed Kingfisher in the rain. Photo: Enam-ul-Haque

Monsoon heralds the mating season of the Stork-billed Kingfisher. As the monsoon deepens, the male sings passionately for a potential mate

It was a great sight to see a kingfisher sit in an unrelenting drizzle and stay calm and dry as the raindrops gather like little pearls on its oily feathers and dribble down. In this corona-afflicted monsoon we have been fortunate to enjoy such spectacles at this part of the city with nothing better than smelly lakes and polluted ponds to offer a visiting kingfisher.

Lately this brave male Stork-billed Kingfisher has been sitting on high perches in our neighbourhood and charming us with its euphonious song. We were used to the sights and sounds of the two commoner species of fishmongers, the tiny Common Kingfisher and the bigger White-breasted Kingfisher. Arrival of this new male is a bounteous addition to our small kingfisher community.

Stork-billed Kingfisher is simply the king of kingfishers. It is the largest of the seven species of kingfishers we commonly see in this country. The country, like the subcontinent, has another five species of kingfishers that are seen rarely, and certainly not in the city.

We were not astonished to see the Stork-billed Kingfisher in the city since this species is known to be fond of ponds and pools much more than rivers or lagoons. It does not like to go fishing in murky water. We were thrilled mainly because it is rarely seen in this part of the city.

Why has this kingfisher chosen to grow so big? We guess the advantage of being big is the greater gravitational pull on the bird when it dives to the water from a high perch. That little additional pull is probably a great help to enter a little deeper into the water and hunt fish not accessible to the lighter kingfishers.

As the Stork-billed Kingfisher initiates a dive it transforms into some stunning blaze of colours without shape or form. It really 'Leaves a rainbow splinter sticking in your eye' as Ted Hughes wrote in his poem titled The Kingfisher. The kingfisher regains its shape and form only when it emerges out of water with or without the trophy it went headlong for.

More often than not our Stork-billed Kingfisher failed to return to its perch with a trophy. By those repeated failures the kingfisher remained undaunted; but we were not. Diving was not a sport for him; his life depended on the success in catching fish. We wished the big fellow could find enough food in our neighbourhood and did not have to leave looking for nourishment elsewhere.

We knew that the Stork-billed Kingfisher had the finest of gears and best of training in his trade. It understood the laws of refraction of light and knew how far away the real fish was from the image created by the refracted light. Its beaks were lined with sharp and hooked 'teeth' to make sure that once caught no fish escapes this bird alive.

The evolution of millions of years made the Stork-billed Kingfisher a great fisherman but could not prepare it for the time when most lakes and ponds would essentially be barren or dead. We merely hoped that all the lakes and ponds of Baridhara, Gulshan, Banani and Cantonment together could provide enough nourishment for at least one or a pair of Stork-billed Kingfisher.

We have been overfishing, polluting and strangulating every waterbody of our country relentlessly for more than a century. We have taken a toll in the kingfisher community far greater than the coronavirus would ever be able to do to us in a century. The kingfishers are far more helpless against our onslaught than humanity is likely to be against any viral attack.

Unlike other kingfishers this giant bird sings a soft, melodious song: 'Pew-pew, Pew-pew.' Its ardent 'Pew-pew' was transliterated by the Bangalees of yester years as 'Meg-hou' which in Bangla meant 'let it rain.' That was how the kingfisher got its Bangla name 'Meg-hou', an appropriate appellation of a bird that loves the monsoon.

Monsoon heralds the mating season of the Stork-billed Kingfisher. As the monsoon deepens, the male sings passionately for a potential mate. Forming a pair-bond, finding a nesting site, preparing a nest and incubating the eggs take about three months. The chicks needed to arrive in the middle of autumn when the flood-water recedes exposing a bounty of fish, crab and other aquatic creatures for the hungry hatchlings.

It would be a sad and lonely autumn for the male Stork-billed Kingfisher in our neighbourhood if he failed to find a mate in monsoon. We know that he is not looking forward to a lonesome autumn. We frequently hear him sing from tall trees in the neighbourhood. We also see him fly overhead in the rain and broadcast its song from the sky.

Like him we also have been hoping that a female Stork-billed Kingfisher would turn up and find the singer and the neighbourhood good enough at least for a short stay and give him as well as his abode an opportunity to reveal their potentials and promises to her. Unfortunately, that has not happened yet.

The male continues to sing vigorously but does not look as confident and optimistic as before. Come autumn we would hate to share our neighbourhood with a forlorn and desolate kingfisher.

Enam Ul Haque is the Chairman of WildTeam.

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