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22 january 2020

I don't believe I have ever seen a kingfisher. At first I thought perhaps this was because kingfishers don't live in Texas. But no, all three species of kingfisher native to the U.S. occur in Texas, two of them (the green and ringed kingfishers) only in Texas, among the States (they are common further south). The belted kingfisher is found in all 49 continental states, and its conservation status is "least concern." I just haven't been paying attention.

Ildiko Szabo's Kingfisher, for the Reaktion Animal series, is impressively informational and, like its subject, nice to look at. Kingfishers have drawn human admiration for centuries, thanks to several salient traits. They are miracles of function, able to break the plane between air and water unnoticed by their fishy prey. They are gorgeously colored. And they mate for life. People aspire to be like kingfishers and often borrow the poor creatures' plumage to reach that goal.

Though Szabo is quick to point out that not all species of kingfisher exhibit all of those merits. Some, like the American belted kingfisher, are drab. Some, like the Australian laughing kookaburra, are polyamorous. And most kingfishers, says Szabo, don't eat fish at all. All are carnivorous, but most of the diet of kingfishers, worldwide, consists of small invertebrates, amphibians, or reptiles. Many species don't go near water.

The common European kingfisher, Alcedo atthis, scores on all three counts, though, and it is the kingfisher immortalized in Western legend. Szabo keeps coming back to Ovid's story of Alcyone and Ceyx, the couple faithful until (and beyond) death who are rewarded with metamorphosis into kingfishers. "Halcyon," a versatile and positive term in the English poetic vocabulary, comes from these mythical kingfishers, and refers to storied, sublime, and heroic days, usually of yore.

Szabo is a museum curator, at his best describing the technical aspects of kingfisher coloration or hunting tactics. He is also good at cataloguing literary appearances of kingfishers. In many a Reaktion volume I have been able to supplement the author's mentions of a given animal considerably, but Szabo has done his homework, citing poems by Charles Olsen, Amy Clampitt, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, and William Shakespeare. He is sometimes less clear when sorting through taxonomy or ethology; some paragraphs are hard to parse and seem convoluted.

The most interesting chapter in the book, by my lights, is one about the Chinese art of tian-tsui, an analogue to cloisonné, where the coloring elements are provided by kingfisher feathers. Tian-tsui objects, important status symbols for many centuries, are remarkable for their intricacy, their uselessness, and their longevity. Many antique tian-tsui pieces survive, a testament to the esteem that Chinese people have had for them through many a regime change. And this despite their susceptibility to damage. As Szabo explains, no kingfisher feather – no feather of any bird – is really blue; they contain no blue pigments. The blue is an optical feature of their structure, and can be darkened or destroyed by handling. Grand ladies of the old Chinese aristocracy wore their tian-tsui with care, and preserved it in specially-designed containers.

Though I just got done praising the thoroughness of Szabo's coverage of kingfisher literature, I do have to close by saying that he omits the kingfisher reference that I remember the best from all English poetry is in T.S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton:":

After the kingfisher's wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.
Here the kingfisher provides euphony, as in Hopkins' "As kingfishers catch fire'; in fact, knowing Eliot, you suspect that his own line responds to Hopkins', "answers light to light." But now, knowing the secret of the blue in the bird's wing, the passage gets even more interesting: the blue of the wing has no color of its own, but produces blue in the light that it scatters. I don't know if Eliot knew that. He just might have.

Szabo, Ildiko. Kingfisher. London: Reaktion, 2019.