Even as the soft light of dawn spills into my bedroom, the long, strident call of our resident white-throated kingfisher jolts me awake. As I jump out of bed the call rises rapidly to a crescendo. There is a sense of urgency in the shrillness: of a parent warning fledglings that a cat is on the prowl. The squirrels join in the alarm call, as do the cuckoos and mynas. I grab my camera for I know that once the cacophony dies down, it will be feeding time for the chicks — and a fascinating morning will unfold in the world just outside my window.
Summer (April to July) is breeding season for the white-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis). I have spent several weeks observing a breeding family in my urban, semi-wild garden in Chennai. Like some other species of kingfishers that are not partial to water habitats, these birds prefer wooded country or cultivated fields, living mostly on a diet of insects, lizards, frogs, and other small prey.
I have seen the entire family of four just once, two earnest parents and two fledglings, all perched at different levels on the Cassia javanica. The adult male and female are almost identical in colour; the female slightly smaller. The colours of the chicks are softer, and they sport a tell-tale fluffiness. The adults are known to pair for at least one breeding season, and share parental duties.
Camera in hand, I head out to the garden. The strident call has become a soft, lilting trill, “ki-e-ee-ee ki-e-ee-ee ki-e-ee-ee”. On a low branch of the cassia, I spot the adult kingfisher, chestnut and turquoise aflame in the slanting rays of the sun — her colours as dramatic as her call. In time, I realise that the trilling call is also a summons for the chicks to assemble. With prey in her beak, she is calling her chicks for a snack. There is an immediate response, a soft, deep-throated clicking “chri-ee chri-ee chri-ee”. The muted calls throw echoes and are difficult to trace, and I’m surprised to see the chicks fly across from the towering desi badam tree (Terminalia catappa) that dominates my garden. Patiently, one insect or lizard at a time, the mother hunts for about an hour, feeding the chicks in turns.
The legs and beaks of the chicks are still not the coral red colour of the adults; also, like fledglings of several other species of kingfishers, their beaks are tipped with a spot of white. Remarking on this to a naturalist, I learn there is a theory that the white tip guides the parent to accurately deliver food to the chick. It’s a theory I would completely subscribe to — the white dot actually lights up like a small bulb in the sunlight!
The mother has a few preferred hunting perches, vantage points from where she can survey food sources. One favourite is a branch just above the composting leaf pile, full of insects, lizards and termites. I watch her graceful acrobatics as she dives in repeatedly, coming up with food every time. But my duties call too, and I head indoors.
Inside the house, my family joins me in my avian obsession. We have our vantage points as well. One window overlooks the compost pile, where the fledglings spend most of the day training to hunt. Suddenly, my daughter chuckles. I join her to see one of the chicks dive-bomb into the leaf-pile after the mother, only to end up with limbs and wings all over the place. Unfazed and back on its perch, the chick picks up a twig with termites on it, thrashing it repeatedly on the branch to prise out the insects. But there’s a problem. Termite feast over, part of the twig is now stuck awkwardly in the fledgling’s beak. The chick struggles the whole day to get rid of the offending object while I watch anxiously. By the next morning, the twig has vanished.
For almost a week, the fledglings spend the better part of the day in our garden, with brief sorties to neighbouring areas. Day by day we watch them grow more adept at hunting. Their flight is stronger, more assured. When the denizens of the garden sound an alarm call for the cat, they fly to the higher branches of the tall, straight Cassia that the feline cannot easily climb. On cue, I run out to chase away the predator while the chicks observe my antics with interest.
On the terrace one evening, my daughter spots both the fledglings on the Cassia. We get quite close and they let us take pictures, watching us all the time. I am strangely touched but nervous for the chicks; it is not safe for them to be so trusting. Dusk falls rapidly, and soon we hear the parent’s lilting call. It’s time for the feathered family to go home.
Where is home, I wonder. The last time I watched a kingfisher family, the parents and chicks would head off, calling stridently as they left, practically announcing their departure. I guessed they were nesting in the mud bank of a neighbouring canal. This time, it looks like they have nested in a hole in one of the dry branches of the old badam; there is no dramatic exit, just a quiet melding into the dusk.
A few evenings later, I run out as the familiar shrill call ricochets around the garden, announcing the arrival of the parent. Then she calls again, the trilling call. She has food. One of the chicks flies to her. Unexpectedly, she flies higher with the treat. Then even higher, to the top of the apartment nearby, calling as she flies. The chick follows. Is there a predator? But she is flying into the open.
I don’t see the family the next day, or the next, but I hear the familiar call of the adult in the distance. I hope the chicks are safe. On the third day, the two chicks are back in my garden with the parent. Suddenly, it clicks. The parent was expanding their territory. The fledglings were ready to face the world.
In his podcast, “The Voices of Birds and the Language of Belonging” for Emergence Magazine, Pulitzer finalist David G Haskell describes birds as “quick-fingered jewelers of air”. He adds: “In their modulations of pitch, amplitude, and timbre we hear the vitality of their blood, muscle, and nerve”.
There is a bridge, Haskell believes, that can connect us across the otherness of birds, to kinship. “That bridge is made from the gift of our attention… it is an opening to the languages of birds in the everyday.”