By Jagath Gunawardana
The commonest and most widespread of the kingfishers found in Sri Lanka is the White –breasted Kingfisher, which can be seen in many home gardens, away from a body of water.
The White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis fusca) or the White-throated Kingfisher is the well-known Pilihuduwa in Sinhala although some have given it the name Lema-sudu Pilihuduwa, a direct Sinhala version of the English name.
It is usually a solitary bird that is often seen quite a distance away from water bodies and is quite common in home gardens. It is not shy of human beings and seemingly oblivious to all noises and activities that go around it. Each bird maintains a territory which has several suitable high places for it to perch and look around.
It perches high on a branch or any other suitable vantage point and favours TV antennas and telephone and power lines in urban areas. It has a habit of bobbing its head up and down, and twisting the tail while perching and uttering a low ‘chik-chik’ note. When disturbed and in flight, it utters a loud, high-pitched ‘krich-krich’, and during the breeding season the male utters a rattling ‘treee’ call.
The flight is fast and powerful with strong wing beats. This kingfisher is not dependent on water for feeding though it can, and usually does, catch fishes and other aquatic creatures easily.
It dives directly into the water from a perch high up and comes up with prey, its trough-like lower mandible helping to keep the struggling creatures securely between the mandibles. The prey is dashed repeatedly against the perch till it dies or is subdued before swallowing. It readily takes food off the ground by coming down in a quick swoop.
The White-breasted Kingfisher feeds on a wide variety of small creatures such as fishes, shrimp, crabs, worms, insects, centipedes, snakes, lizards, geckoes, skinks and nestlings of species of sunbirds (Purple-rumped and Loten’s), munias (Spotted and White-backed) and tailorbirds. It is also seen feeding on small fish such as herrings and sprats kept in the open to dry, and coming down and perching besides the food to feed on continuously on the ground.
The White-breasted Kingfisher has an extended breeding season from December to June with most nesting happening in March to May.
Nesting is occasionally found in other months as well, as it was seen this year when nesting went on till July. The breeding season is heralded by the males making the trilling call from vantage points and engaging in displays that consist of opening up wings, bobbing the body and offering food to females. Its nest is a long tunnel dug into an embankment, and sometimes, it makes use of an existing hole, using holes in trees on occasion.
Both birds engage in excavating the hole with their beaks and kicking back the loosened soil with their feet. It takes a long time to dig, depending on the type of the soil. It is seen using holes in parapet and retaining walls in urban areas, and sometimes, successfully digging into brick walls. This tunnel is about six centimetres (two and a half inches) in diameter and is about 60 to 90 centimetres (two to three feet) in length, though it may be longer on occasions.
The eggs are white and a clutch has three to five eggs, the usual number being four. Incubation and feeding of young are carried out by both. Observations at nest holes of both the arriving birds and left over pieces of creatures reveal that food fed to the young consist of many types of small creatures and not solely fish, as some assume. The parents take great efforts to protect the nest hole and soil burrowing creatures and snakes are chased off before they even get close. The Land Monitor is especially hated as it burrows in to soil on embankments.
This species is found throughout the country in all zones and is common everywhere, even in the midst of busy towns including Colombo. It is not shy of human beings and does not mind loud noises and other disturbances. However, it always keeps an eye on any movement close-by and invariably flies away if approached directly by a human being. A very adaptable bird, it uses any high place as a vantage point and preys on any creature small enough to be hunted and eaten. It is seen feeding on snakes, centipedes, worms and lizards that are quite large and take considerable time and effort to consume fully. It is, however, a threat to pet fish, especially those kept in ponds and outdoor tanks. It does not go into forests and is seen only along the fringes. This is yet another species that has adapted well to changes and successfully exploited the changes brought about by man. It is seen that their numbers are not only stable, but increasing in some areas, including in towns. It is always more common in urban areas where there is some open ground for it to hunt than in wooded areas.
The White-breasted Kingfisher has a wide range of distribution in several different forms from India, Burma, Malaysia Thailand, Indo-China to Indonesia and Philippines. The sub-species found in Sri Lankaand much of Indiais Halcyon smyrnensis fusca that is darker, smaller and has blue on upper parts as opposed to greenish blue of others. It is also the commonest and most widespread kingfisher in India.
* Kingfishers belong to the family Alcinidinae. They are large-headed, short-necked, long-billed, stout-bodied and short-tailed birds with colourful plumages.
*Their legs are very short and weak and their front toes are united along most of the length (known as syndactyle).
*All are totally carnivorous and many species feed mainly on fish.The long and pointed beak has a lower mandible that is flat and broad as a tray to keep prey securely.
* This family has 93 species in the world.
*Seven species have been recorded in Sri Lanka. This number is made up of six residents and one migrant.
* The White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis fusca) is about 25 centimetres (10 inches) long, or about the size of a Common Mynah, but has a slender build.
*It has a dark, reddish brown head, neck and sides of the breast and abdomen, while the throat and the middle of the breast are bright white in colour. The back, rump, tail and wings are a bright cerulean blue (turquoise blue) in colour while the median wing coverts are dark brown that show up as a wing patch when at rest. The primaries are black or blackish-brown with white bases. These form a carpal patch that is clearly seen as a white wing patch in flight.
*The beak is a dark, dull red and the legs are dark red.
*The males and females are similar in appearance, although the female is duller on her upper parts.
*This species is unique in having upper parts that are lighter in colour than the under parts. This is clearly seen in black and white photographs courtesy: Ceylon Today