For the past several weeks, they’ve been heckling me derisively: on the Delhi Ridge, at Connaught Place and even Dilli Haat; easily audible even above the cacophony of traffic. Every morning the threat rings out from the Nicholson Cemetery next door: “Killill…killillill…”
Up there on the rooftops, or tree tops you might spot one of these would-be killers: flamboyant and jazzy as any bandmaster, equipped with a roving eye, wicked grin and deadly red dagger bill: the white-throated kingfisher.
If you are a frog, lizard, large insect or small wriggly fleshy rodent or reptile, be afraid, be very afraid. No, you don’t have to have gills to be a victim — these guys have gone beyond their traditional diet of fish. If they pick you up, expect a horrible end: pincer-gripped in that massive dagger bill and bashed to death on the ground or against a rock, before being swallowed. And that wolfish grin never goes away.
With their chocolate-brown head and smoking jacket, white waistcoat and brilliant turquoise back, white-throated kingfishers are the most successful member of their clan in India, equally at home in the countryside as they are in cities like Delhi. That deadly “killill…kill…lilll…” threat is a territorial warning to other males, “keep away, or else” and a “come hither” call for the ladies. They nest in summer, preferring to finish family business by the time the rains set in. They drill tunnels — up to a metre and a half in length — in soft earth banks along rivers and nallahs, by the simple expedient of torpedoing holes into them. At the end, the tunnel broadens out into a nursery, where five-six roundish white eggs may be laid. I suspect they’ve been nesting on Delhi’s northern Ridge too, for I have seen slovenly-dressed juveniles every year, but have never located their hideouts.
They have a smaller, bejewelled cousin: the common or little kingfisher, which, alas, is no longer so common in Delhi. It sports a sapphire spangled head, rich russet breast and has a snazzy white streak running across a ginger cheek. It is armed with a sharp black dagger bill and bright eyes. It’s a bird that takes your breath away every time — streaking like an electric tracer into the water and emerging happy-eyed with a wriggling silver fish. According to legend, the little kingfisher was originally a dull grey bird, which flew out of Noah’s ark, after the flood, towards the sun and burnt its breast rusty orange and its back reflected the blue-green of the evening sky. The little kingfisher specialises in fish, which is why it is no longer found along the glutenous sludge-nullahs of Delhi. Mercifully, it can still be seen along the banks of the Yamuna, but for how long is anyone’s guess. Look sharp if you’re at the riverside or by a water body anywhere in the country and hear a sharp shrill squeak, pitched high with excitement.
A third member of this clan, (“we three Kings!”) is the pied kingfisher, another fish specialist that has all but vanished from Delhi. Clad in black and white dapples, it sports a rakish crest, massive dagger bill and the same wolfish schoolboy grin of its turquoise cousin above. The gentleman wears a black double gorget across his throat, the lady has but a single strand of rough-cut black pearls, broken halfway through. The pied kingfisher is a spear-fisherman par excellence. It’ll park itself 15-20 m up in the sky, standing on its flared out tail, hovering, bill and head pointing downwards and then dive, gannet-like into the water to snap the fish it has spotted. Its physics is up to scratch, for it has taken the angle of refraction into account while diving and will not make a fool of itself as it plunges. Along swiftly flowing mountain streams and rivers (a white-water lover), dwells its XL brother, the raffish crested kingfisher, which simply slices into the water after fish, and does not hover. Like all fishermen, kingfishers are patient, waiting for hours on telephone poles or electric wires, reeds, trees and rooftops, waiting in happy anticipation of their victims to show up.
All told, there are around a dozen species of these glamorous birds found in India. Ah, a dirty dozen you might think — not really, more, a deadly dozen. Very deadly, especially if you are a small rodent or reptile or sardine and hear that gleeful call, “kill…lllilllilll!” ringing out from somewhere close by.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird-watcher
The story appeared in print with the headline Kill Bill