When the kingfishers returnWritten by George Ellison
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Belted kingfishers are one of my favorite birds, so much so that I wrote a poem years ago about anticipating their return to our creek each spring titled “Kingfishers Return.” A pair fishes along the small creek on our property during the breeding season. In winter they move downstream to the Tuckasegee River and Lake Fontana, although the male will make infrequent appearances, probably to maintain control of his hunting territory. Each March they return for good, raising a ruckus as they fly over our cove with rattling calls that are a part of their mating ritual.
With most bird species, the male is usually the more conspicuous. The female kingfisher is an exception, however, having a chestnut breast band in addition to the gray one shared by the male. Because she broods her young deep in the ground, the female’s maternal duties don’t make her an easy target for predators. She has no real need for the sort of subdued protective coloration characteristic of female cardinals, towhees, and numerous other bird species. Her decorative breast band makes her one of the few female birds in the world with plumage more colorful than her mate.
If you have kingfishers that are active in your vicinity from March into early summer, look for their nesting dens. Situated in a steep bank, the entrance is about the size of a baseball. If it’s being used, there will be two grooves at the base of the hole where the birds’ feet drag as they plunge headfirst, in full flight, into the opening. The tunnel leading to the nesting cavity may be from three to 15 feet in length. Kingfishers have toes that are fused together, which help them excavate more efficiently. Obviously designed to prevent access by predators, these nesting dens can be located some distance from water, often in roadway cutbanks or where there has been excavation around a building site.
It’s not surprising that such a conspicuous bird would have a place in Cherokee bird lore. They composed stories that accounted for the kingfisher’s fishing tactics and incorporated the bird into their medicinal ceremonies. One can learn about the natural world by direct observation or from scientific studies. Or you can come to another sort of understanding by paying attention to the lore handed down by the Native Americans.
When James Mooney was collecting Cherokee lore here in Western North Carolina during the 1880s, he recorded two accounts of how the kingfisher (“jatla” in Cherokee) got its bill. Some of the old men told him the animals decided to give the bird a better bill because it was so poorly equipped to make its living as a water bird. “So they made him a fish-gig and fastened it on in front of his mouth.”
A second version Mooney recorded was that the bill was a gift from the benevolent Little People, the Cherokee equivalent of Irish leprechauns. They had observed a kingfisher using a spear-shaped fish as a lance to kill a blacksnake that was preying upon a bird’s nest. So they rewarded him his own spear-shaped bill.
This outsized bill accounts for the kingfisher’s success as a fisherman. One of the prettiest sights in the bird world is that of a kingfisher hovering over the riffles in a small stream before plunging headfirst underwater after its prey. Its success rate is phenomenal.
Before going fishing, the Cherokees evoked the kingfisher in magical formulas that would hopefully insure equal success.
Belted kingfishers are permanent residents of the southern mountains, wintering along the larger waterways that do not often freeze over. In early spring, they reappear on smaller creeks within individual breeding territories.
Rosy maple hazes tree line.
Catkins pendant over creek.
Hepatica glows in leaf-litter.
For days now you have been
watching & waiting.
But not till you are least prepared is she suddenly there …
sculling upstream with swift strokes
rattling the morning into being
weaving her territory with sound
painting the air blue-gray and rust-brown
as her kind has for so many thousand years.
She is beyond all thinking
instinctively keen to a fuller world
than you or I could ever hope …
but if she should notice she notices
that you scribble the rocky soil ...
if she should expect, she expects failure of you
for she is the intuitive gardener of those more subtle
regions: the magic water &
the clear flowing air.
If she ever remembers she remembers
the camps laid here so long ago and
the darker people who also worried
the dirt & also shouted with joy
into the sunrise at the glory
of those flashing wings!