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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. The male's opening move is direct: He hurtles after his former foe, whistling urgently. If she tolerates his company, he will ply her with fresh fish, directing them headfirst 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.

After three weeks of brooding, the eggs hatch. Hardly fastidious homemakers, the birds raise their nestlings in the dark on a layer of tiny fish 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 fish in earnest. The kingfisher is an ambush hunter, perching over a river until a small fish flicks 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 after 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 fish a day, and that messy layer of fish bones builds up.

What kingfishers lack in fine manners they make up for in fecundity. Many bird species will raise a second brood, but kingfishers, averaging six or seven eggs per clutch, often raise a third. One pair was observed raising a fourth.

Zealous reproduction helps the species thrive. Throughout its range, the kingfisher's status is stable enough that very few ornithologists pay it much heed. The handful of Alcedo atthis scholars 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 goldfish pond. And Japanese ornithologist Satoe Kasahara says that lately kingfishers have snatched fish from urban ponds in her country. Across the kingfisher's range, wherever rivers are healthy, fish will swim. And where the fish go, the flashy little bird with the sassy whistle is likely to follow. 

Hannah Holmes's most recent book is The Well-Dressed Ape: A Natural History of Myself. Charlie Hamilton James is equally compelled by otters and kingfishers.
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