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FAMILY THE FOURTH.—The KINGFISHERS (Halcyonidæ, VIG.) The Kingfishers, of which several genera,
depending upon trifling variations in the outline of the bill and other circumstances, are now established, form a very natural group characterized by the straight, lengthened, and pointed beak, with angular ridge and edges ; by the extreme shortness of the tarsi, the outer and middle toes being united as far as the first joint; and by the the short tail and rounded wings. These are birds which prey upon fish, which they take by launching arrow-like into the water, and seizing transversely with their sharp and powerful beak. Hence for the most part is their plumage burnished with a metallic surface, and resplendent with the most brilliant hues. Lonely tenants of the banks of secluded streams and rivers, they spend the day in darting up and down the stream, or at rest on some overhanging branch, intently watching for their prey.
The species are very numerous, and are spread throughout every part of the world; they agree so closely in general habits, that the description of our native species, the Common KINGFISHER, (Alcedo Hispida,) will suffice for all. On all our streams, and especially those which flow through fertile meads, and abound in fish, may this richly coloured but voracious bird be met with, glancing backward and forward like a meteor, dazzling by the brilliancy of its hues as they flash in the sun. Often may it be seen poising itself at a moderate degree of elevation over the water, and then darting with astonishing rapidity and suddenness upon some unwary trout or minnow, deep beneath the surface, but which is seldom missed by its assailant; so impetuous is the plunge, and so aided is the bird in passing through the water, by its acutely wedge-shaped contour of body, and by its burnished plumage. Its ordinary way however of watching for its victims, is for it to sit with dogged patience on a branch or tree, or rocky projection overhanging the stream, whence in silence and alone it watches every occurrence in the watery element below. Should its prey appear within reach, down it descends instantaneously like a shot, the crystal water scarcely bubbling with the plunge, the next moment it rises up, bearing its prey in its beak, and returns to its resting-place again. The bird now commences the destruction of its captive; without losing its hold, it passes the fish between its mandibles till it has it grasped fairly by the tail, and then ends its struggles by beating its head against the branch on which it sits; it next reverses its position, and swallows it head foremost; or if it have young, bears it away to its ravenous brood.
Though the Kingfisher may be often found near the haunts of man, still it prefers lonely and secluded places where it may pursue its instinctive habits without interruption. Its mate is its only companion, and both labour assiduously in the support of their young. The place chosen for incubation is a steep precipitous or overhanging bank, in which, at some distance above the water, they either form or seize upon a burrow extending about three feet deep, at the extremity of which, without making any nest, the female lays her eggs, about five in number, of a beautiful pinky white. After the young are hatched, it is not long before they are surrounded with a circular mound of disgorged fish bones (for, like hawks and owls, the Kingfisher recasts the indigestible parts of its food), which has led some to suppose that it was of fish-bones that the nest was constructed; such however is not the case. The young, almost as soon as fledged, acquire the brilliant plumage of the adult, a circumstance not general. But in the present case it is thus wisely ordained, because essentially necessary; for in plunging into the water in order to gain its subsistence, the Kingfisher absolutely needs this burnished surface for the purpose of throwing off the fluid, and thereby preventing the plumage from becoming saturated.
After quitting the nest, the young are led to some secure resting-place, where, clamorous for food, they tax the industry of their active parents; they are however soon able to fish for themselves. When winter drives the finny tenants of the rivers to deep and sheltered bottoms, the Kingfishers leave the shallow inland streams and pass towards the coast, frequenting dykes and the mouths of rivers, especially on our southern shores, and return inland with the return of spring.
The crown of the head, cheeks, and wing-coverts are of a deep green, each feather being margined with a lighter metallic hue; the rest of the upper surface brilliant azure, ear-coverts rufous, throat and back of the neck white; under surface fine rufous : length seven inches. The ancient poets indulged in many fables respecting this bird, but which have nothing to do with its history.
The last family of the Fissirostral tribe is that of the BEE-EATERS, ( Meropide, Vig.)
HEAD OF A BEE-EATER,
The characters of the genus consist in the quadrangular, curved, and pointed form of the beak; nostrils small
, and partly concealed by bristles directed forwards; tarsi
small and short; outer and middle toes connected as far as the first joint; wings long, and pointed.
The Bee-eaters have considerable resemblance to the swallows in their general habits and modes of life, their food being insects, which they take while on the wing, skimming and darting along with great rapidity: here, however, the resemblance ends; for in other respects they are closely allied to the kingfishers, as is indicated by the form of the foot and tarsus, the elongated beak, the metallic brilliancy of the plumage, which when in the sun gleams like burnished gold, and by the mode of incubation. In most species the two middle tail-feathers considerably exceed the rest, and are slender and pointed. The genus contains numerous species, all confined to the warm or sultry climates of the Old World. The only European species furnishes an appropriate example.
The BEE-EATER, (Merops apiaster.) This richly coloured bird occasionally wanders as far as the British Isles, but never stays to breed. Its native habitat is the southern and eastern provinces of Europe, and the opposite continent of Africa, whither it appears to retire during winter, for it is a migratory visitor, appearing in Spain, where it is very abundant, during the first week of April, in flocks of forty or fifty, generally passing along at a considerable elevation, but sometimes, and especially in showery weather, approaching nearer the earth, or scattering themselves over fields and gardens in busy pursuit of bees, wasps, butterflies, and grasshoppers. Their note, uttered as they skim along, is a shrill whistle, heard at a considerable distance. From Spain, which country it enters by way of Gibraltar, the Bee-eater extends throughout the southern provinces of France, Italy, and the islands of the Mediterranean, taking up its abode along streams and rivers, where, like a blazing star, it may be seen coursing up and down in chase of its prey. In the country around Gibraltar they are said to be exceedingly numerous; nor less so on the rivers Don, Volga, and Yaik, in southern Russia, as well as in all the adjacent range of Tartary, in Palestine, and Arabia. In some places they retire southwards in August, in others in September, assembling together and performing their journey in flocks of thousands. Like the kingfisher, this bird builds in clayey or sandy banks, especially such as border rivers and streams, making a deep burrow, at the extremity of which the eggs, without any further preparation for their reception, are laid on the bare earth; they are of a pure white, and five or seven in number. It is also observed, that as the kingfisher recasts the bones and scales of fishes, so does the Bee-eater the wings and indigestible parts of its insect food rolled up into the shape of small pellets.
Latham informs us that in Egypt this bird is called Melino-orghi, or bee's enemy, and is there eaten for food.
Of its fondness for bees, and consequently the injury accruing to apiaries from its presence, the Roman poet Virgil seems to have been well aware ; for in his Georgics, Book iv. line 14, he distinctly mentions it :
“ Absint et picti squalentia terga lacerti
VIRG. Geor. iv. 13-17.
M. The colouring of this species is as follows: forehead yellowish white, merging into bluish green; back of the neck and upper part of the back rich chestnut, passing off into brownish amber ; ear-coverts black; wings greenish, with an olive tinge, and a large band of brown across the middle; quill-feathers inclining to blue, and ending in black; throat bright yellow, bounded by a black line ;