Today was a great lesson in patience for my young son, as I introduced him to a mysterious denizen of this wild world; a bird that vastly outshines even the most wondrous of fantasy characters of my own books.
If we hadn’t been on a narrow country road with steep ditches on either side, I’d have pulled a U-ie. Because as we passed, I saw a regal little bird I haven’t seen in years, sitting proudly on a cement barrier over a culvert. Its dark, fanned out crown set above a white throat, and that over-long pointed beak like a thick pair of needlenose pliers was too distinctive to misinterpret.
“I just saw a kingfisher!” I shouted. My two boys, in the backseat, just looked at each other. “A what?” I so wanted to pull a U-ie. But we really didn’t have time to risk getting stuck in a ditch, as I had to get my older son to his last day of horse camp on time. But as we left camp, I drove slowly down that country road with my younger son in tow until I spotted the cement barrier and found a semi-flat area to pull off in. My six year old still didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, and wondered why we were crouched at the corner of a slime-covered creek and a barbed wire fence, haloed by sweat bees, being as quiet and still as we could. “Mom, can we go now,” he asked several times. “I don’t think that bird is coming back.”
But if there was good fishing there, then the bird would certainly be back. Maybe this was a regular morning pit stop for him or her. Better yet, maybe it had a home in the very bank we crouched upon. How I would have loved to have gotten a snapshot of one of those regal, squat little birds with a silver arc of writhing breakfast in his long beak. But the virtues of a six year old, especially one surrounded by whining insects, don’t include extraordinary patience. More to distract him than because I thought it would actually lure the bird back, I asked if he’d like to hear what a belted kingfisher sounds like, and pulled up a recording on my phone. I turned the speaker up as loud as it would go and played that strange rattle call over and over.
And suddenly, the real thing called back!
My son, the words, “Can we go now…” still on his lips, was stunned silent as he broke into a big grin. We both looked out in the direction of several bobbing silhouettes of downy woodpeckers and other small birds in the distant tree tops. One of those black blobs was our guy– he’d heard us, and called back! Or maybe it was our gal–did you know that belted kingfishers are one of the few bird species in which females are more decorated than males, wearing a fashionable chestnut belt that the males lack?
Either way, what a beautiful diversion from our busy morning. What a great use of an otherwise distracting powerhouse of technology (these phones today!). What a very vocal reminder that we aren’t the only citizens of this world that stay in touch with one another, and have important things to say. In fact, some research indicates that kingfishers identify themselves by their unique calls. Our guy or gal, in calling back, was also in a way giving us his or her name!
But what I find especially fascinating about kingfishers is that they seem to be at home in any element. They literally inhabit all three realms; earth, water and air. Two of their toes are actually fused to make them stronger at digging, since their homes are excavated from earthen banks along the water. And of course, they dive through air and plummet beneath water on a regular basis to feed. A kingfisher would indeed be a tricky animal to make a character in my fantasy series, Fae of Fire and Stone, since all of my Fae characters take on animal (or plant) forms based on the element they most identify with (earth, water, air or fire). A kingfisher shape-shifter would be all-powerful indeed!
But those little details about the bird that don’t fit neatly into human-identified categories intrigue me most, and I am so very glad my son and I sat still for a moment in this bird’s realm. Why shouldn’t the female of this species be prettier than her mate, even if (as scientists seem to have concluded) they haven’t reversed their gender roles? Why shouldn’t a bird leave the sky and rest in the dark, safe harbor of the earth to raise her young?
And why shouldn’t we sacrifice a moment of our morning, listening for the sound of her name?