KINGFISHERS must be numbered among the commonest birds in India. They are fowl which observe Friday every day of their lives. They do this because they like fish. Quite a large number of the winged community subsist on a fish diet: there are the cormorants, the osprey, the fishing owl, and a host of other interesting fishermen, accounts of which would certainly fill a large book.
Three species of kingfisher are very common in all parts of India. Alcedo ispida, the common kingfisher, of course occurs; this bird is distributed all over the Old World. The variety found in India is much smaller than the one we see in England, and used to be con¬sidered a different species and called Alcedo bengalensis.
Naturalists, however, are now agreed that both the large and the small races form but one species. The difference in size is usually attributed to climatic influ¬ences; it is held that in the hot climate of India the bird does not attain its full devolopment.
With all due respect to those who entertain this theory, I would point out that the common kingfisher found in those parts of the Himalayas where the winter temperature falls to 16° F. in the night time is no larger than the Madras bird. Mr. Blanford says that this kingfisher is not found in the Himalayas. This is certainly not the case. I have seen dozens of specimens of the birds in those mountains at altitudes of 5000 feet and even higher. The common kingfisher has the typical build of the tribe: its neck and tail are short, its bill is long, and its figure distinctly dumpy. The breast is ferruginous, and the wings and back light blue, the blue of the former having a greenish tinge. The feet are coral-red. A white patch on the side of the neck completes the bird's uniform.
As it sits on a branch overhanging water, with its head buried in its neck, but bobbing up and down with spasmodic jerks as though it had a slight attack of St. Vitus's dance, the bird puts one in mind of a shrivelled-up Blue Hungarian bandsman dressed in a uniform three sizes too large for him. When, however, a fish shows itself the kingfisher becomes sprightly enough. It slips into the water at a considerable angle and reappears with its tiny quarry, which it first dashes against a stone and then swallows. The whole process is accomplished in about five seconds, and is performed with ridiculous ease.
No piece of water, which contains fish or Crustacea, is too small to serve as a preserve for the common kingfisher. I once saw one sitting up over a pool, not three square yards in area, which had formed in a hole by the roadside.
A pair of kingfishers inhabit the Victoria Regia pond in the Botanical Gardens at Madras, another make the Boat Club their head-quarters and dive off the landing-stage, a third affect the culvert at the tee of the seventh hole of the " Island " golf links; indeed, almost every piece of water in Madras has its special kingfisher.
Birds are essentially stationary creatures. The average non-migratory bird, if we except swallows and swifts, does not, under ordinary circumstances, ever wander more than a mile or two from what may be termed its head-quarters. Even migratory birds content themselves by travelling to and fro between their summer and winter quarters. A pair of kingfishers select a stretch of water and remain upon it until death parts them. They guard the fishing ground, when once it is selected, as jealously as a European power guards a new sphere of influence which it has established.
The common kingfisher is not a noisy bird. When it rests it rarely if ever utters a sound ; when, however, it dashes along, just over the surface of the water, it emits a peculiar whistling call.
The next kingfisher which demands our attention is the beautiful white-breasted form -: Halcyon smynensis. This is the commonest kingfisher in Southern India. He is one of our noisy birds, his unpleasant scream being one of the most familiar sounds in Madras.
He is distinguishable from the species already described by his larger size, his white breast, his more brilliant plumage, and the white bar on his wing, which is seen only during flight. Many birds have a similar white bar. The use of this to its possessor is a mystery.
In the case of gregarious birds, such as mynas, it is supposed to be useful as a mark of warning. One of the little flock sees danger and flies off; the flash of the white in his wings attracts the attention of his companions, and they follow him without knowing why they are flying away. But the white-breasted kingfisher is not a gregarious bird, hence in his case the white bar cannot have this meaning.
It has been suggested that it serves as a recognition mark, a mark whereby the male and female can distinguish one another from other kinds of kingfishers. This may be so, but it seems to me that, if the kingfisher has any difficulty in recognizing his wife, and I am far from asserting that he has, his difficulty would be in distinguishing her, not from a bird of another species, but from others of her own kind.
The white-breasted kingfisher is an organism full of interest to the zoologist, since it appears to be undergoing evolution before our very eyes. Those who do not believe in the theory of evolution -: and there are still some persons who do not -: urge as an objection to the theory that they see no signs of changing structure in the animals round about them ; these are apparently fixed and stable, and not undergoing any modification.
It is true that Nature does not work in a hurry, that most of the alterations which are being effected are coming about so slowly as to be imperceptible to human eyes. There are, however, exceptions, and the white-breasted kingfisher is one of them.
The proper hunting ground for a kingfisher is obviously water of some description or other, but this particular species is often found far away from water. It is one of the common birds of our gardens, and is found even in compounds which contain no fishing places.
I once saw a white-breasted kingfisher hawking insects on the Poona racecourse, just as you may see the " blue jay " hunting them on the Madras course. There is no water near the course at Poona. The fact of the matter is, the kingfisher is changing its habits. It finds that fishing is a poor profession, so is giving it up and going in for insect catching. It is becoming less and less of a fish-eating bird and more and more of an insectivorous one. It has advanced to such a stage that a sheet of water containing fish is no longer a sine qua non of its existence, as is the case with most kingfishers. Hence I make so bold as to prophesy that in years to come the white-breasted kingfisher will lose completely the knack of fishing; it will altogether forsake the water and obtain its living just as a roller does, and may one day even tackle snakes !
This bird can be kept in captivity. In 1900 Mr. E. W. Harper sent to the Bombay Natural History Society a most interesting account of some white-breasted kingfishers which he was keeping as pets. " Last summer," he wrote, "having obtained another white-breasted kingfisher, I determined to adopt a different method of feeding it. Small pieces of raw lean meat were pushed down the bird's throat, until, in a day or two, it took the meat of its own accord. This meat diet was varied with pieces of fish, the bird always striking its food (as it would have done a live fish) upon its perch three or four times before swallowing it. This was done with a jerking movement of the whole body.
" Lizards, shrimps, and grasshoppers are greedily accepted as dainty morsels by this bird. Although I have had the bird about nine months, yet I have never seen it drink. Its meat and fish are always placed in a jar containing three or four inches of water, into which it plunges its massive beak to take out its food. I might also add that the bird sometimes immerses its beak in the water, instantly withdrawing it with a shake of the head, even when not feeding." Mr. Harper adds, " the average weight of food eaten in one day is if ounces, or equivalent to about twenty-one minnows."
The third kind of kingfisher found in Madras is the pied one -: Ceryle varia. The plumage of this bird is black and white, and has been aptly compared to that of a silver-spangled Hamburg fowl. This species is the finest fisherman of all. It looks for its prey, not while sitting on a perch as most kingfishers do, but while hovering over the water, and dropping into it like a stone when it espies its quarry. This bird has very powerful pinions, and will spend long periods on the wing without resting on terra firma. Now it hovers with rapidly vibrating wings high above the surface of the water, then it dashes off to a considerable distance, and again hovers; next it makes as if to dive ; it drops, but suddenly checks itself, and flies off with a twittering scream, to hover again over another part of the water; perhaps this time it espies a likely fish and drops into the water, completely disappears for a moment, then emerges with its victim.
Some observers declare that this bird never dives without catching a fish. This I cannot believe. I have often seen the bird drop into the water and come out again without apparently having caught anything. It is of course possible that it may have seized some minute water insect and swallowed it at a gulp. Mr. Harper's kingfisher consumed in a whole day the equivalent of twenty-one minnows. That bird was in captivity, and did not take so much exercise as a free bird would; hence we may double the allowance of the wild kingfisher. If then it catches a fish every time it dives, forty plunges would suffice to procure it a day's food.
Every one who has observed the habits of this kingfisher knows that it dives very many more than forty times in the course of the day. It seems to hunt from morning to night. The birds are of course not always on the move. They frequently rest. One or two pied kingfishers are usually to be seen sitting on the telegraph wires which run across the River Cooum parallel with the Mount Road, Madras.
Kingfishers nest at the end of holes excavated in river banks. During the breeding season, which commences in December, numbers of nests, or rather the entrances thereto, may be seen in the banks of the Adyar River. The excavations are six feet or more in length, so that it is impossible to reach a kingfisher's nest without extensive digging. Nor are the passages which lead to the nest straight. But the nest is not much to look at. The white eggs are laid on the bare earth, and are mixed with fish-bones cast up by the birds.
Kingfishers, like most birds, object to having their domestic affairs pried into. They will not actually attack the human being who tries to get at the nest, but they raise a tremendous hullabaloo. All kingfishers make similar nests. In some parts of India, however, the white-breasted form appears to be changing its habits as regards nest building, just as it is doing with regard to fishing. According to Mr. E. C. Steuart Baker, the white-breasted kingfishers found in Cachar do not excavate their nest, but build a roughly constructed one of moss amongst rocks or large stones.
Kingfishers are exceedingly unfortunate in having attracted the attention of the poets. Very few of these gentry can ever have seen any of the birds, but all of them have heard of them, and this they think sufficient to warrant their writing on the subject. Let me give a few choice specimens of what the poets are capable of.
Howitt writes of " the scarlet plume of the halcyon." We must, however, not be too severe upon this bard. It is quite possible that some wag dipped a sparrow in red ink and showed it to the poet as a kingfisher. The average poet seems to regard the bird as a sort of melodious seagull, having the habits of the bald coot. This the following quotations will prove: -:
(1) "Bird of calm that sits brooding on the charmed wave."
(2) " When winter halcyons, flickering on the wave,
Tune their complaints, yon sea forgets to rave, Loud winds turn zephyrs to enlarge their notes, And each safe nest on a calm surface floats."
Phil Robinson, in the "Poets' Birds," quotes thirty equally idiotic effusions. But Shelley beats all records ; no Yankee blood-curdling yarn-spinner could equal him.
" Upon a drooping bough with nightshade twined, I saw two azure halcyons clinging downward, And thinning one bright branch of amber berries With quick long beaks, and in the deep there lay Those lovely forms, imaged, as in a sky."
Had he described a couple of kingfishers sitting on a merry-go-round, drinking ginger-pop and eating apple tart, the poet would have been equally near the truth. The worst evil one can wish to a bird is for it to fall into the clutches of the poet!
Eighteen different kinds of kingfisher are found in India, and a group of birds more interesting to the biologist does not exist. As we have seen, the white-breasted kingfisher affords striking evidence on behalf of the theory of organic evolution ; the group, however, prove no less conclusively, in my opinion, the insufficiency of the theory of natural selection alone to account for the origin of all new species.
All kingfishers and their allies (except the aberrant form described above) have similar habits; why then the great diversity in their colour ? We see in Madras the little blue kingfisher and the black-and-white species living side by side, each equally successful in the struggle for existence, and each carrying on the same trade; surely, then, if their colouring is due to the action of natural selection, both species should resemble one another in appearance. Yet as a matter of fact they do not.
What has caused this divergence ? This is a question to which a satisfactory answer has yet to be found. Let us not be mistaken. I do not deny the adequacy of natural selection to produce new species. Undoubtedly, numberless species have arisen as the result of the weeding out of the unfit; but it seems to me that natural selection alone is unable to explain organic evolution. It is undoubtedly a factor in the origin of species and probably the most important factor, but it appears to be but one of many factors, several of which have yet to be discovered.