A scarlet bird: the Ruddy Kingfisher
With fiery plumage and a voice that was thought to summon the rain, discover the folklore and natural history of this splendid bird through the eyes of a photographer.
'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, June, 2021
Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado
English Translation: Asia Club, a WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko, UENO Naohiro)
This spring, while practicing “Stay-Home Time” which was initiated by the Japanese government to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I was able to spend a relaxing time watching the trees and flowers in the garden of the Akasaka Detached Palace every day. Every year, from autumn to early summer, I used to visit many places to photograph birds with my heavy lens and tripod, but due to the pandemic I haven't been anywhere for more than a year. I'm a little worried about my weakened muscles! This time, the highlight is the Ruddy Kingfisher Halcyon coromanda, and I will show you some photos I took three years ago.
Scarlet expresses the color of fire and the sun. When flying through the forests, the Ruddy Kingfisher really does look like a fireball. The bird is very eye-catching with its distinctive large head, thick bill and short tail – but once it reaches the ground, its reddish-brown body blends into the dead leaves and is well-camouflaged.
It is said that the Ruddy Kingfisher is seen and heard more often now than ever before. Although I have long wished to observe it closely, several years passed by in vain. Three years ago, however, my wish was granted. Thanks to the guidance of my bird-loving friends, I had the opportunity to spend a whole day hiding in a tent, and was able to watch and photograph the bird. It was such a sunny day and the contrast between the dark forest and the outside was so strong that I was often confused about exposure and aperture, but it was really a happy and fulfilling time for me to have watched and photographed the Ruddy Kingfisher.
The descending tone of the Ruddy Kingfisher’s call, “kyo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-lo”, is quite unique and impressive. Since the bird breeds during the rainy season, and often calls when it is likely to rain, it came to be nicknamed the “rain bird”. Its outstanding appearance and unique, somewhat melancholic call must have stirred people’s imaginations and inspired various folk tales. In one tale, the Ruddy Kingfisher calls to the heavens, “give me water”, for it was prohibited to drink water as punishment for a misdeed. In another, the Ruddy Kingfisher used to be a Common Kingfisher. Caught in a fire, its plumage changed to red, so it calls for water.
The Ryukyu Ruddy Kingfisher Halcyon coromanda bangsi, a subspecies of the Ruddy Kingfisher, migrates to Okinawa. Different from the Ruddy Kingfisher on the main island, it prefers to nest in villages near the coast, and is therefore a common sight for local people. More than 20 years ago, when we visited Ishigaki Island in Okinawa, we heard a Ryukyu Ruddy Kingfisher calling near our hotel. My late husband, Prince Takamado, imitated its call, “kyo-lo-lo-lo-lo”. The bird came closer to us, little by little, and called back. Thinking that another male bird had come into its territory, it must have wanted to drive the invader away. His Highness smiled and said, “As my call is a little poorer, the bird may show up.” He exchanged calls with the bird three times. According to him, if the invader calls very well, the bird thinks that a younger and stronger male will come and gets scared. But if a similar or weaker individual has come, it’s easy to expel it, so there's no problem. It’s a sweet memory to me.
Many people may associate the phrase “bird of fire” with the phoenix, an immortal bird. Realising its last moments are approaching, the phoenix dives into the blazing fire and resurrects itself. Throughout human history, many civilizations perished and new ones have been born. Even in the fight against viruses, we human beings recovered each time. In the present COVID-19 pandemic, too, vaccination has started all over the world. I am sure our society will be reborn and succeed in recovering.
They say that whoever has seen a bird of fire will become happy. The Ruddy Kingfisher is also a bird of fire. Therefore, I wish my dear readers look at these photos carefully and feel happier, even just a little.