National Geographic : 2009 Nov
Disputes begin with high-speed chases and the occasional beak jab. If aerial jousting doesn t settle the argument, things may turn deadly. At the river s edge two birds will lock beaks and attempt to force each other underwater. Breeding season requires a pause in the usual hostilities between sexes. e male s opening move is direct: He hurtles a er his former foe, whistling urgently. If she tolerates his company, he will ply her with fresh sh, directing them head rst into her beak. On occasions when a truce is struck between neighbors, the pair will merge territories---temporarily. From their joint holdings they ll either select an old nest for reuse or start anew. Chiseling a two-foot tunnel can take ten days of hard labor for the pair. A er three weeks of brooding, the eggs hatch. Hardly fastidious homemakers, the birds raise their nestlings in the dark on a layer of tiny sh bones regurgitated as pellets, then shattered with a perfunctory peck. (Hamilton James has watched this behavior from a subterranean observatory adjoining a nest.) Both parents sh in earnest. e king sher is an ambush hunter, perching over a river until a small sh icks into range. It can plummet, strike, and wing back to its perch in the space of two blurry seconds. It thumps the catch against the branch to stun it---a lesson some young birds learn only a er swallowing a stickleback that erects its dorsal spine on the way down. For the three or four weeks that chicks are in the nest, the adults may bring home 50 to 70 sh a day, and that messy layer of sh bones builds up. What king sherslackin nemannersthey make up for in fecundity. Many bird species will raise a second brood, but king shers, averaging six or seven eggs per clutch, o en raise a third. One pair was observed raising a fourth. Zealous reproduction helps the species thrive. roughout its range, the king sher s status is stable enough that very few ornithologists pay it much heed. e handful of Alcedo atthis schol- ars report that it is one of the wild animals that don t mind rubbing shoulders with humans--- good news in an increasingly urban world. Hamilton James observes that his local birds are always willing to annex a backyard gold sh pond. And Japanese ornithologist Satoe Kasa- hara says that lately king shers have snatched sh from urban ponds in her country. Across the king sher s range, wherever rivers are healthy, sh will swim. And where the sh go, the ashy little bird with the sassy whistle is likely to follow. j Hannah Holmes s most recent book is e Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself. Charlie Hamilton James is equally compelled by otters and king shers. In a riverbank burrow a mother feeds one of her nine-day-old chicks a small fish, which it will swallow whole.