Alcedo atthis (also known as the Eurasian, European, or river kingfisher) has inspired many an obsession. In the world's temperate zones, where drab plumage is the norm, this kingfisher, unlike its North American cousins, bedazzles. Slicing the air like a turquoise missile, it is impossible to disregard.
The yellow, red, orange, and brown birds of the world assume their hues because of a pigment embedded in the keratin matrix of feathers. But blue feathers result from refraction, a prism-style splitting of light inside a feather. Under a microscope each long kingfisher barb, finer than a human hair, glitters with shades of the Caribbean. Tiny structures in the feathers choreograph incoming light, reflecting sapphire in one direction, emerald in another.
Alas, beauty can be a curse. At times, kingfisher feathers have achieved the status of gemstones, silk, and spices. A third-century Chinese text describing Western cultures included a list of treasures that might be extracted from the Roman Empire: ivory, gold, carnelian, pearls, kingfisher feathers. Over the course of 2,500 years, the Chinese fashion industry plucked an inconceivable number of birds from the forests of Asia. In an art form called tian tsui, or dotting with kingfishers, craftsmen applied the shimmering feathers to jewelry, fans, privacy screens, and landscape panels. Entire quilts were reportedly transformed into blue-green seascapes. Korean royalty shared the passion, which finally faded in the early 1900s.
Fortunately, these days the little spitfire's rarity is an illusion. The kingfisher isn't shy; it simply exploits an environment most people (with the exception of Hamilton James and his sort) avoid. The ideal riverbank is crumbly enough for the birds to excavate a nesting burrow with their beaks. The nest should be sufficiently high to ride out occasional floods and sufficiently low to thwart foxes, snakes, and other raiders trying to penetrate from above.
Solitary most of the year, each individual strives to protect enough real estate to guarantee steady fishing and a good nest site. "These tiny little birds have got to hold down a whole mile of river," explains Hamilton James. Neither male nor female will hesitate in the defense of this life-sustaining territory. At just an ounce and a half, a kingfisher is a force to be reckoned with. "They're very loud, and they tell everyone they're coming," says Hamilton James. "I suppose they are quite arrogant."