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March 06, 2005

Birds of Iraq: The White Breasted Kingfisher

The kingfishers of the genus Halcyon take their name from the ancient Greek legend of Halcyone, the daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. According to her myth, Halcyon was married to Ceyx, son of Helios, the god of the sun. After Ceyx died in a shipwreck Halcyone fell into a fit of despair and threw herself into the sea. The gods, taking pity on the doomed pair, turned them into kingfishers. Presumably, they lived happily ever after.

In the days of the Ancient Greeks, kingfishers were thought to raise their young in nests built upon the surface of the sea. Each winter Aeolus supposedly calmed the winds upon the sea for two weeks so that his daughter's descendants could nest without fear of losing their offspring, thus giving us the term, "halcyon days." That winter period is now more popularly known by another name, "Chrismas."

In modern times Ceyx lives on as a family of dwarf kingfishers. Halcyon gave her name to a family of woodland kingfishers, relatives of Australia's kookaburras. The North American kingfishers belong to yet another group.

The Halcyon above, the latest in the series of photos sent to us by our avifanalist in Iraq, LTC Bob, is Halcyon smyrnensis, the White-breasted Kingfisher, one of two kingfisher species found in the Tigris/Euphrates basin of Iraq. The other, the Pied Kingfisher, will appear in a future edition of Birds of Iraq.

Like most kingfishers, The White-Breasted makes its prescence known not only by its striking plumage, but by its raucous song.

...they make their presence known by their loud calls. They are often sighted in rural areas, perching on telephone wires or other vantage points (8-10 m up).

White-throated Kingfishers as a group eat a wide range of food, but each bird may specialise in a particular prey. They take fish (particularly during the wet season). But other prey make up the bulk of their diet. These include tadpoles, grasshoppers, lizards, insects. They basically take any small creature that they can catch and kill.

While hunting along the water, they prey on crabs, amphibians (frogs) and reptiles (skinks, lizards). On land, they hunt large insects and arthropods (grasshoppers, beetles, termites, scorpions, centipedes). They beat these against their perch to kill and remove venomous stings. They even take small mammals (rats, mice, voles), snakes up to 65cm long, and nestling birds.

White-throated Kingfishers dive to catch aquatic prey; in shallow water, entering feet-first, in deeper waters, head-first. They can also hover for a short while before plunging in. They also dive into grass and vegetation to catch their prey. Their huge bills come in handy to hammer their prey to death. Swarming termites may also be caught in flight.

Kingfishers are so active that catching one in mid-feed is difficult, but LTC Bob managed to do so nonetheless. Not sure of the species of frog that ended up as dinner here, though Birding Babylon might have an idea.

Iraq has only 7 species of amphibian, of these I only saw 1, the Green Toad. In late March in Balad I started hearing the toads calling in the ditches, which at the time still had some water. About a month later I found one under a piece of cardboard in some wet mud. In April and again in May I found individual toads hopping around our building at night after it rained. The toads must aestivate during the summer, burrowing down into the soil to survive the heat.

My home state of Connecticut has 22 native species of amphibians. Iraq is relatively poor in species because of the arid nature of much of the country. All the frogs and toads are widespread species but two newt species, especially the Kurdistan Newt have very restricted ranges.

In addition to the Green Toad, Iraq is also home to 3 other species of frogs. One of the frogs is the very handsome looking Mediterranean Tree Frog (Hyla Savignyi), It looks a bit like our Pine Barrens Tree Frog. Two other standard type frogs are the Marsh Frog (Rana ridibunda) and the Edible Frog (Rana esculenta).

Only three species? It's surprising, because at one point in history, Iraq was known as a very hospitable environment when it came to Frogs. Like the Kingfisher's dinner above, those Frogs have been smacked around a good bit lately, so perhaps it's not quite so surprising that they're not as active as they once were.

Previous: Babblers of Babylon
Next: The Greylag Goose

Posted by Bigwig at March 6, 2005 04:59 PM | TrackBack
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