Encounter – What’s black and white, and hovers?

Ogres Sandy and Arun recollect their encounters with the common but lovable Pied Kingfisher

Black, white and eats fish

Sandy: The first time I saw the Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) was in Thekkady, Kerala, in my fledgeling days of bird-watching. As a kid I had read that kingfishers were of many kinds and this one was called “pulli meen kothi” – literally, the “spotted fish-pecker” (in Malayalam). The book carried an illustration of a bird with a large head and a larger bill — it wasn’t very far off the mark when I first noticed this bird perched on an embankment. Then it did something that amazed me. With a sharp call it rose from its perch, flew a few feet into the lake, and hovered. It didn’t move left or right, forward or backward – it just hung stationary in the air, wings beating furiously. Then came the typical kingfisher dive, cutting into the water, and a moment later the bird emerged with a tiny fish struggling in its mean-looking beak.

Seconds before the dive, the pied kingfisher straightens its wings

Arun: I used to watch Pied Kingfishers in the fields near my house in Kerala. It was a pleasure to observe them early in the morning as they hovered in the mist, their black-and-white bodies flickering in and out of sight. They are generally hard to miss as they are always on the move and active unlike other kingfishers, which rely mostly on the patient ‘wait and watch’ strategy.

The Pied King, as I nicknamed these true kings of the kingfisher world, are the only kingfishers I have seen that are capable of true, sustained hovering. The others can fly and dive and at most manage to hover for just a couple of seconds. 

I last observed these birds at Madiwala Lake in Bangalore. A pair was continuously fishing along the entire length of the bank. I’m not sure why they preferred to fish in this way. Maybe the vegetation along the lake shore darkened the water with their reflections and shadows and helped eliminate the sky’s reflection to aid better views beneath the water surface.

A Pied Kingfisher hunting in Madiwala Lake, Bangalore
A resident bird of the Indian subcontinent, the Pied Kingfisher lives on fish and crustaceans unlike its cousin the White-throated Kingfisher, which prefers easier prey like amphibians, reptiles and insects. It is always found near water bodies and nests in burrows on the embankments. The call is a shrill ‘kri kri kri.’ 

Male and female birds can be easily distinguished by their breast bands. The male has double unbroken bands across its chest while the female has a single broken band.

A male, easily identified by the double-banded “necklace” on its breast

In the female, the single breast band is broken
Unlike other kingfishers, which prefer the convenience of open perches near water bodies to dive down after prey, the Pied Kingfisher’s modus operandi is somewhat similar to the Common Kestrel and the Black-shouldered Kite (whom we have met previously in our Raptor Friday series). It hovers in the air above water bodies, looking for prey, head down. Upon locating the prey, makes a vicious plunge and emerges with the kill. This fishing strategy could be one of the reasons why this kingfisher has a black-and-white coloration. As the bird hovers over a water body, its white underside blends in with the background of the sky, effectively camouflaging it as it is fishing and improving the chance of a successful hunt. Other kingfishers stalk by waiting and watching for signs of prey movement, so they have darker colouration which would blend in with the surrounding foliage.

A hovering male shows off its largely white underside

Hovering moments…

Sandy: My latest encounter with this bird was at Polachira, a wetland near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Summer had set in, and the water body was turning shallow, leading to fish shoals being concentrated in the deeper patches. On a misty, breezy morning a pair of Pied kingfishers was flying about, hovering, diving and coming up with catches nearly each time. I spent almost an hour photographing them against a rising sun.

The dive…

Text: Arun Menon and Sandeep Somasekharan
Photographs: Sandeep Somasekharan. Additional photos by Arun Menon
All rights reserved

Newsletter signup

It's more fun when you subscribe.
Great content. Zero spam. And your data stays safe. Promise!

Newsletter signup

It's more fun when you subscribe.
Great content. Zero spam. And your data stays safe. Promise!

One thought on “Encounter – What’s black and white, and hovers?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.