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11/10/2006 Archived Entry: "Kingfisher"
Kingfisher photo by Marek Szczepanek
Most of us rarely consider the kingfisher to be associated with this time of year and yet one of its old names is St Martin's bird. It is not the only bird to bear that name – martins such as house martins and sand martins are thought to have been linked to the saint because they could often be seen migrating through France around his feast day.
Similarly in France, hen harriers were also known as St Martin's birds (les oiseaux de Saint Martin) because they could be seen migrating on or very near the saint's feast day. Although St Martin was not French by birth, he is always associated with the town of Tours in central France; he became bishop of Tours in AD 371 following his conversion in Rome.
The kingfisher's associations with St Martin arise because this bird is also linked to his feast day. Here in Britain, that day is otherwise known as Martinmas and it falls tomorrow, November 11; in fact Martinmas can include a few days either side of St Martin's Day.
Quite often, there is a period of uncharacteristic warm weather around this time, perhaps a week before his feast day or perhaps during the week following, and this has become known as St Martin's Little Summer. Some refer to it as an Indian Summer when temperatures can be unexpectedly high.
To understand the link between the kingfisher and St Martin's Day, however, we need to delve into ancient Greek mythology and the legend of Halcyone, sometimes known as Alcyone. She was the wife of Ceyx, King of Trachis. Ceyx was drowned at sea when his ship was wrecked and Halcyone was distraught. Overcome with grief, she plunged into the sea in an effort to find his body. She died and the gods were so impressed that they turned both her and Ceyx into kingfishers.
This was done so the couple could live peacefully on the water and be faithful to one another for life. The gods also granted Halcyone and all her descendants the further privilege that when she laid her eggs on her floating sea-borne nest, the waves would remain calm so that the nest and young birds would never be troubled by storms. This later led to the belief that the kingfisher had the power to calm the waves. This calming of the sea in late autumn is still known as the Halcyon Days.
In truth, of course, kingfishers do not nest on a water-borne nest. They drill long tunnels into the sides of river banks or cliffs where they lay their brilliant white eggs on a nest of fish bones. Both birds help in incubating the eggs and become filthy through their constant movements in and out of the earthen tunnel, which can be up to a meter in length. The nest is in a small hollow at the very end. The birds also smell dreadful due to their nest of fish bones and it's not surprising they frequently plunge into the water in an effort to cleanse themselves.
In this country, the kingfisher is present throughout the year, although if the weather is severe in winter, it might move to the coast where the sea does not freeze, and where food is therefore available. When ponds and rivers become covered with ice, the bird's food supply is dramatically reduced and there is little doubt they suffer terribly in those conditions.
The kingfisher is perhaps the most brilliantly coloured of all our birds for it has iridescent blue-green plumage on its upper parts and wings, orange underparts and cheeks, a white throat and neck patches, red legs and red feet. When it darts along a river, it looks like a sparkling blue arrow – it is not surprising that few of us ever see a kingfisher for it is a shy bird which prefers quiet stretches of water. Quite often, its presence is heralded by a shrill piping call as it speeds over the surface – usually, this is the only warning of its presence that we might receive.
It is a small bird, only slightly larger than a house sparrow but it is a highly efficient catcher of fish and other forms of small river life such as tadpoles, insects and molluscs. It will perch on a small branch overhanging the water, then dive in after its prey. When it catches a fish it will return to its perch and beat the head of the fish against the wood until it is dead, turn it around and swallow it head first so that the fins and scales lie flat as it goes down its throat.
It is hard to believe that our forefathers thought the kingfisher was originally a dull grey colour; they thought it flew from Noah's Ark and got so close to the sun and heaven that it acquired those beautiful colours...