White-throated Kingfisher: Sunning or courtship?

This is a lively exchange between Sun Chong Hong and Daisy O’Neill on the former’s account of a pair of White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) the was videoed on a TV antenna:

30th March 2012, Sun Chong Hong: “There were several days in November last year when I kept hearing the alert/territorial calls of the White-throated Kingfisher, daylong except during the hotter period of the day. The puzzle was answered when I saw a pair of juvenile White-throated Kingfisher on 11th November, enjoying the morning sun at about 9 am on the TV antenna of a semi-detached house at the fringe of my condo.

“As I took the video of them spreading the wings for a short time of one second or two, and fluffed up the feathers of the body at times, the alert/territorial calls of the parents could be heard in the background. I suspect that they have yet to master the skill of the trade as not much benefit for the wing feathers can be obtained from such short exposure to the sunlight.

31st March 2012, Daisy O’Neill: “…Have you considered they could be a breeding pair postulating and greeting each other? My past observations have juveniles recognised by the colour of their beaks to be dark-greyish/black with white creamy tips. As juveniles grow, so does the colour of their beaks changed too. While sub-adults have reddish patches over dull greyish black beaks, at breeding stage, the beaks of males especially turn all red like the bird on the left of the TV antennae while the female on the right appearing to be a matured bird, with beak all even out and albeit less bright than the male.

“I posted a write-up series on the breeding cycle of White-throated Kingfishers a few years ago HERE and HERE. …you may find the series there for comparison. I remembered posting quite a number of pictures of the juveniles being fed by their parents.

1st April 2012, Sun Chong Hong: “As a beginner, I wasn’t aware of the difference in features between a juvenile (which I used loosely to include immature and sub-adult) and an adult. I thought they were juveniles because they appeared to be quite oblivious to my presence. The idea seemed logical with the constant alert calls that I assumed to have come from the parents, whose natural instinct is to warn off-springs of danger.

“It was good that the strong sunlight then allowed more details to be recorded and scrutinised. The two attached resized still images (above) further reinforce your comments about the difference between the colours of beaks of adult males and females (notice a flying insect in front of the male’s forehead (above left).

“Since my original thinking was for a pair of juveniles sunning, the idea of a breeding pair postulating (sorry don’t understand what you mean in this context) and greeting didn’t arise. Since it is clear now that it was a breeding pair, your interpretation may well be right. Nevertheless, the sunning behaviour was definitely there. I have uploaded the original unedited video clip for a more complete picture of the episode (above).

“As for your excellent informative series on the breeding cycle of White-throated Kingfisher, the third (last) one is HERE. The earlier two parts can be found through the related posts.”

1st April 2012, Daisy O’Neill: “Thanks for posting the unedited version which I like better and tells the conclusion of the pair of White-throated Kingfishers you have beautifully videoed.
Postulating (to postulate) I mean the bowing actions of the bird. This was done with bodily sway with wings spread facing his partner who equally responded in sync. I am sure you would have some time watched NGeographic documentaries of waterbirds like cranes and flamingos during their courting/breeding season, would bob their heads up and down partners synchronising with other.

“Your video footage showed that movement probably not seen by many not before by me anyway of the kingfishers exhibiting that behavior. They appear to be classical early courting behaviors. Not many species of forest birds do that and I am glad you got that image in.

“Birds who sun themselves usually would have had a bath prior and leave their wings spread out like an after-rain coucal. Also, they would sunbathe, spread wings and keep still to get rid of parasites or just open perched under the sun and remain quiet for any foraging opportunities. Sunbirds I have observed worshipping the sun, play dead by lying supine on a tree canopy and soaked in the glorious sunrays. (Image on that in storage standby article).

“The quick spread actions of wings on your video look more like gestures in courtship – trying to look more attractive, colourful and bigger like humans courting, each showing and wearing their best or just showing off to impress. Your sunning kingfishers definitely gave you more than what seemingly seen as just an ordinary and common pair on a TV antenna. Many interesting humanly behaviors can be observed in commonly seen birds if one cares to find the time to observe carefully.

“To add more value to your video, may I also comment the impatient squawking calls of a 3rd White-throated Kingfisher in the background which you interpreted as parental calls is probably a male contender in Q. You might like to consider that too.
It is like telling the wooing male, “Look, if your ‘Kang hoo’ (courting skills ) can’t get that woman to respond please move aside, my turn to have a go.”

“The concluding undedited video showed the pair on the TV antennae facing back to back and one was seen to turn away showing lack of interest. You waited and then switched off your video as no copulation took place.”

1st April 2012, Sun Chong Hong: “Thank you once again for the enlightening comments. This exchange illustrates the advantage of videography over still image in that, with a better picture of the episode seen, it is easier for experienced and knowledgeable observers to add values to posts where the birdwatchers may be unfamiliar (or mistaken) with the observed or heard behaviours.”

2nd April 2012: Daisy O’Neill: “Yes I would agree good videography has its advantages as long as birds’s welfare is not compromised for each birder/photographer/videographer is is accountable for their own actions. Keep your good skills in videography coming!”

30th October 2012, Sun Chong Hong: “While it seems that not many people have witnessed the courtship display of White-throated Kingfisher, I have the luck of seeing it again on 29th Jun 2012 at about 8 am, 7 months after watching it for the first time.

“The performance was on exactly the same stage – the same set of TV antenna on the roof of a semi-detached house. But this time there was no direct sunlight illuminating the performers, resulting in less brilliant colours. With a change of my camera position compared to the previous occasion, the delicate movements of the birds to balance themselves against the swaying tv antennae can be seen clearly.”

1st November 2012: Daisy O’Neill: “Good you had another opportunity to observe the kingfishers again. A quick look suggest to me that the two birds are just being playful, prancing from one aerial to another in a past-time. They don’t look like they are in breeding mood for amour. One of them as described to be dark bill could be a subadult male or female. The back lighting don’t help much to bring out the redness of a breeding bill.
One was seen to be yawning and seemed to avoid the other.

“You might be lucky in the next attempt – try for a copulating video shot and definitely put to confirmation a breeding pair in courtship display.”

Sun Chong Hong & Daisy O’Neill
November 2012

Follow YC Wee:

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

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