Colours of Wildlife: Brownhooded Kingfisher

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Brownhooded Kingfisher

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Brownhooded kingfisher by Willem

This time I bring you a bird that I love very much! The Brownhooded Kingfisher, Halcyon albiventris, is one of the commonest species over here in South Africa. It has a very wide range, taking it northward into East Africa as far as Somalia, and there's another population extending from Angola northwards into west-Central Africa. The genus name 'Halcyon' comes from the Greek legend about Alcyone, the daughter of the wind god Aeolus. Her husband Ceyx suffered a shipwreck, and in her grief, she threw herself into the sea as well. Ceyx and Alcyone were both transformed into birds (by now this seems to me to have been a quite regular occurrence in ancient Greece) and they nested on the sea, now calm. The 'Halcyon Days' therefore refers to the supposed seven days that the sea stays calm around the winter solstice. The genus 'Halcyon' is by far the largest in the kingfisher family and includes species ranging from Africa to southern Europe, Asia, Australia and the Pacific islands. The species name of the brownhooded kingfisher, 'albiventris', means 'white-bellied' and is descriptively quite useless. Not only do several other Halcyon-species have white bellies, the brownhooded kingfisher itself does in fact not have a particularly white belly! It is most of the time a dirty brownish grey, often with darker streaks. The common name is not much better, since this kingfisher doesn't have a conspicuous brown hood, merely a head tinged brownish with a few streaks. And last of all, it hardly ever catches fish! But it's easy enough to recognize. It is much more brown, and streaky overall, than the other South African kingfishers. The only similar species is the Striped Kingfisher, which however is only half its size, and doesn't have as much of the vivid blue the brown-hooded kingfisher has on its wings and tail. The brownhooded can also be recognized by its black-tipped red bill and red feet. It reaches a total length of 22 cm/about 8.5".

The bird I painted here is actually a female. The male is very similar, but has a darker back, more blackish than brown. Compare my photo below, taken of a male brownhooded kingfisher captured during a bird ringing (or in the US lingo, banding) project in the Polokwane Game Reserve. It's not much of a sex difference, compared to many other bird species.

The Garden Kingfisher

Brownhooded kingfisher by Willem

I would like to refer you to my article about the Greyheaded Kingfisher for more information about kingfishers. The brownhooded kingfisher is a close relative of the greyheaded. Like the greyheaded, it isn't really much of a fisher. It is a general predator, catching large insects, spiders, scorpions, small snakes, lizards and rodents. It sometimes even catches fish! But it is a very adaptable generalist. Its versatility has enabled it to make the move, which many savannah birds still have to master, of entering suburban gardens. In my town of Polokwane, the brown-hooded kingfisher is now quite common. Its call, not quite as loud and piercing as that of its relative the Woodland Kingfisher, but still quite distinctive, is often heard around the town. It's difficult to describe in words, but it is a ringing and somewhat raucous 'klee-klee-klee-klee'-sound.

These kingfishers are not as often seen as heard. They hunt by sitting on a perch, usually somewhat concealed amidst branches and foliage (although particularly bold birds sometimes use fences or telephone wires as perches). Sitting very quietly, they're not easy to spot. But when a kingfisher spies something and swoop down at it, its beautiful blue wings and tail are revealed in a sudden flash of colour. Most of its prey is caught on the ground, but it sometimes will snatch insects crawling on leaves or bark. Its environmental needs are very simple: trees or bushes to perch in, and sparsely vegetated, open ground on which it can easily spot its prey. It also needs suitable nesting sites nearby. It actually enjoys access to open water and can sometimes be seen diving into ponds, even if they don't have any fish! In such a case, it is taking a bath.

Like most other kingfishers, the brownhooded nests in holes. It usually excavates them itself in earth banks, like the recently featured Little Bee-Eater. Males and females form pairs which remain together for life. They strengthen the pair bond by singing to each other, spreading and lightly trilling their wings. Each season the couple mates, and the female lays her eggs in the nesting chamber at the end of the usually 1 m/yard-long tunnel and broods them. She doesn't line the nest with feathers or leaves, and neither does she do much cleaning; it soon becomes very messy with droppings, shed feathers and leftover bits of food. But when the chicks are almost fully grown, they will shuffle towards the entrance hole so they can defecate out of it, so that the situation at least doesn't get any worse. The female, after having fed her chicks in the foul nest, will frequently take a bath to clean herself of the gunk before continuing the rest of her day's activities. When the chicks are old enough to leave the nest, they spend some time longer with their parents, perching close to them as they learn how to hunt.

So these bold and adaptable little birds are doing quite well, compared to many other species today, becoming a common and welcome sight in many gardens, and doing their part to help keep the potentially troublesome invertebrate critters in check.

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