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Wednesday, 03 June 2009 18:54

The unique ways of the kingfisher

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Belted kingfishers are one of my favorite birds. A pair fishes along the small creek on our property during the breeding season. In winter they move downstream to the Tuckasegee River, although the male will make infrequent appearances from mid-November into March, probably to maintain control of his hunting territory. Each spring they return for good, raising a ruckus as they fly over our cove with rattling calls that are a part of their mating ritual.

With most bird species, the male is usually the more conspicuous. The female kingfisher is an exception, however, having a chestnut breast band in addition to the gray one displayed by the male. Because she broods her young deep in the ground, the female's maternal duties don't make her an easy target for predators. She has no real need for the sort of subdued protective coloration characteristic of female cardinals, towhees, and countless other species. Her decorative breast band makes her one of the few female birds in the world with plumage more colorful than her mate’s.

If you have kingfishers that are active in your vicinity from March into early summer, look for their nesting dens. Situated in a steep bank, the entrance hole is about the size of a softball. If it’s being used, there will be two grooves at the base of the hole where the birds’ feet drag as they plunge headfirst, in full flight, into the opening. The tunnel leading to the nesting cavity may be from three to 15 feet in length. Kingfishers have toes that are fused together, thereby helping them excavate more efficiently. Obviously designed to prevent access by predators, these nesting dens can be located some distance from water, often in roadway cutbanks or where there has been excavation around a building site.

Ornithologists have determined that an adult-sized bird consumes about 10 fish, each about four inches long, per day. A pair of kingfishers with nearly-grown young would have to catch about 90 fish per day to feed their offspring and themselves. That’s a lot of fish. During inclement weather, the number of fish caught is drastically reduced because of murky water. Crayfish are used as a substitute food; nevertheless, nestlings often starve to death during such periods.

Once the kingfishers are fledged, their parents teach them to fish by dropping dead fish into the water for retrieval. After 10 or so days of this sort of instruction, they are expected to catch fish on their own and are driven from the parental territory.

It’s not surprising that such a conspicuous bird would have a place in Cherokee bird lore. They composed stories that accounted for the kingfisher’s fishing tactics and incorporated the bird into their medicinal ceremonies.

When anthropologist James Mooney was collecting Cherokee lore here in Western North Carolina during the 1880s, he recorded two accounts of how the kingfisher (“jatla” in Cherokee) got its bill. Some of the old men told him the animals decided to give the bird a better bill because it was so poorly equipped to make its living as a water bird: “So they made him a fish-gig and fastened it on in front of his mouth.”

A second version Mooney recorded was that the bill was a gift from the benevolent Little People, the Cherokee equivalent of Irish leprechauns. They had observed a kingfisher using a spear-shaped fish as a lance to kill a blacksnake that was preying upon a bird’s nest. So they rewarded him his own spear-shaped bill.

This outsized bill accounts for the kingfisher’s success as a fisherman. One of the prettiest sights in the bird world is that of a kingfisher hovering over the riffles in a small stream before plunging headfirst underwater after its prey. Its success rate is phenomenal. Before going fishing, the Cherokees evoked the kingfisher in sacred formulas (chants and songs) that would hopefully insure equal success.

Because it was so adept at penetration in regard to excavating its nesting tunnels and fishing below the water’s surface, the Cherokee medicine men also evoked the kingfisher in medicinal formulas that were a part of the healing ceremonies used to cure internal diseases. They wanted their medicines derived from plant materials to penetrate their patients’ bodies deftly, like a kingfisher plunging into its burrow or diving under water. And they wanted to extract the diseases with dispatch, like a kingfisher emerging from the water with its prey firmly clamped in its bill.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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