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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008
By ROWAN HOOPER
Japanese name: Kawasemi
Scientific name: Alcedo atthis
Description: A compact bird, barely bigger than a sparrow, it is nevertheless unmistakable, often seen as a blur of ultramarine blue as it flashes past. The bird is about 18 cm long, with short, rounded wings (for speed and maneuverability) about 7.5 cm long. The head, the back and the wings are an electric blue; the chest and the underparts are bright orange. There is also an orange patch under the eye, and a white "beard." The black bill is large, pointed and sharp, and in females there is a streak of orange on its underside.
Where to find them: Flying low along rivers and other bodies of water from Hokkaido to Kyushu. If these birds were cars, they would be Mazda MX-5s: low-riding, fast and twitchy. The wings whir. Kingfishers are sometimes seen perching near water, or even hovering above it. They prefer still or slow-flowing water such as lakes and ponds, canals and rivers in lowland areas. The unforgivable concreting of Japan's rivers and waterways has not been kind to kingfishers, which are sensitive to pollution and poor management of water systems. Although this bird's Japanese name kawasemi literally means "river cicada," kingfishers are far less common than cicadas. In winter, when ice covers inland waters, they move to estuaries on the coast.
Food: Fish and aquatic insects and crustaceans such as freshwater shrimps. The bird dives and almost immediately surfaces with an animal in its beak. If small enough, the prey is swallowed right away; large fish are beaten to death on a branch or perch.
Special features: Males start courting females from February onward, with a trilling, repetitive whistling song. Like males of many species, they will bring gifts to the female they fancy — in this case a fish carried in the bill, which in no way interferes with the clarity of his love serenade. Females will listen coquettishly from the comfort of a hole in the riverbank, and may fly out to meet him, accept the fish, and return to the hole. Once mated, both sexes excavate a tunnel in a riverbank, and when the eggs are laid in April, the male will bring fish to his female while she looks after the brood. Housekeeping is not a chore female kingfishers concern themselves with: the eggs are placed on fish bones and disgorged undigestible pellets. A second brood is laid in July/August. For efficient hunting, the eyes have polarizing filters to remove water reflection, but underwater they are kept shut and prey is detected by touch sensors that tell the bird when to spring the trap of its jaws.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BIO-IMAGE NET