Pied kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) are a minimalist’s wet dream. They pack up so much suave and swag for a bird with a two-tone (which is what pied means, bi-colored and not getting a pie thrown in your face) color palette, it’s just ridiculous. They are that beautiful. Out of the seven species of kingfisher found in Sri Lanka, they are the third most common (more or less) which is the same for their worldwide distribution where they are found from sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia from Turkey to India to China. Apart from their large distribution, they tend to prefer a more permanent home. They do migrate short distances depending on seasons but do not undertake continent-spanning migrations like most birds.

They have no need to hunt on land as their prey is entirely or mostly aquatic (small fish, crustaceans, aquatic insects, small frogs, etc). So, like hummingbirds, they have become adept at hovering above a stationary point and when you look at videos of them hovering, you can clearly see that only their wings move and the head is motionless and the body is positioned at a roughly 45-degree angle to the water surface. The wings move in a figure-eight position (like the infinity symbol) so they can create the lift they need to be airborne and their wings move at a rate of 10 movements per second! 

Pied Fisher exiting the water with a fish. Photograph by Anjallee Prabhakaran.

This high energy output makes them voracious eaters and they need to eat approximately 50% of their body weight, every day, to survive. They can cover large bodies of water without the constant need for a perch close by because of their amazing hovering skills (this is called “aerial perching”). They hover over the waterline, sometimes fifty feet up and once they lock down their prey (they have this amazing ability to compensate for the effects of refraction caused by water and pinpoint their prey exactly), they dive beak first (like a guided missile) and snatch their prey and gulp it down mid-flight or would take it to the perch to stun it before gulping head first (The reason why birds swallow a fish head first is because that way, the fish scales won’t irritate their insides while it travels down to the stomach).

When they would finally perch on a nearby branch, they would bob their heads up and down and start gossiping with the neighbors about the day (gets as loud as the manning market on a Saturday noon). They are very gregarious (loves company) and would hang out in small groups. Also, it is not unlikely to see large roosts at night. Males and females look alike but easy to tell them apart because of the bands on their chests. Males have a thick band on top and a thin one below and females only have one thick band which is sometimes broken down in the middle.

Photographs by Sayuru Imesh.

Like their common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) cousins, pied kingfishers make their nests on earthy banks closer to a water source. Both sexes put their backs (and beaks) into making the tunnel and it usually measures about 1m in length. Then the female lays about four to 5 eggs and the male helps with the incubation and the feeding of the female throughout the whole process. Because of their sociable nature, other members of the group would willingly help parents to look after their chicks (which is called cooperative breeding). Up to four “nannies” would volunteer their services and usually, the nannies in question are adults who failed to raise their own chicks or the parent’s adult kids from a previous litter. Guess it is family first for these critters (Somewhere, Dom Toretto sheds a tear).

I have this one memory of which I am absolutely fond of. When I was about 8 or 9, I got to fly a kite on a brilliantly sunny, perfectly windy August day, in the middle of a recently threshed field of paddy. Just beautiful scenery all throughout, there I was so full of bliss and giddy as a cat on catnip. That’s the kind of overall feeling which is accompanied whenever I hear the word “kites”. I’m sure most of you have very fond memories of your own when it comes to “kiting” as it combines three things which are irresistible to us, (1) the sensation of flying, (2) the feeling of being in control, and (3) a month of holidays – kite season in Sri Lanka falls in August, just when the school holidays start and during the peak of the South-Eastern monsoon season, which brings sweeping winds into the country.

Gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling, doesn’t it? I’m sure it is intensified by the restrictions placed due to the current covid situation. 

Well in this seemingly innocent hobby that just sparks joy to the point it could make Marie Kondo high, there is a gruesome side, which you might be knowingly or unknowingly contributing to. The crime (yes, it is a crime in a sense when you consider the collateral damage) is leaving nylon and other synthetic-fiber strings – which are used to fly kites – hanging nearly everywhere to the point it feels like walking through a giant spider web of death. Generally, if we are aware of our surroundings we can avoid getting injured by these renegade strings, but there is news about people getting severely injured, some even losing their lives because a string severed a main artery. Just last month (July 2021), a mother and her year and a half old child paid with their lives because a kite string got entangled in the bike they were traveling which caused a roadside accident. If that is the case for us humans, can you even begin to comprehend the effect these strings have on animals, most noticeably on birds as these discarded strings are found mostly on power lines, trees, and other places of elevation where birds choose to roost. 

Those of you, including me, know how deep these synthetic strings can cut if you mishandle them and if tightly wound around anything, they are nearly impossible to break without the aid of a sharp object. Normally, it takes around approximately 15 pounds of force to break a single strand of nylon string, which means you have to yank the ends with considerable force to break it, and if you are not safe (like wearing gloves), as mentioned previously they could end up seriously injuring you. The same can not be said to the majority of animals that get caught as most of them do not have the required physical structure to exert the minimum amount of force needed to break these strings. The more they struggle, the more the strings end up cutting deep like a torture device. Speaking of torture, this is exactly how a snare operates. When an animal is caught in a snare, the more it struggles to be free, the more the snare cuts into the animal which ends with the animal dying a gory and gruesome death. 

I did some digging to see what kind of synthetic fiber strings are promoted online and most turned out to be Nylon but there were some local online vendors who were promoting Kevlar strings! That is even worse! It is not popular as it is quite expensive when compared to Nylon, but Kevlar based strings are four times as strong as Nylon strings and even more dangerous to be handled inappropriately as it can and will cut you to the bone – if the word Kevlar sounds familiar, it is because Kevlar is used to make bulletproof vests – Now I hope that gives you an idea on how strong these things are! If that’s what entails a human being, imagine what it translates to a lightweight, slender creature like a bird who is caught in a death trap like this. The more it struggles to escape, the more it cuts, which could lead to a horrible death by strangulation, starvation (because it is trapped in one place), or by excessive bleeding (caused by deep lacerations). 

Purple swamphen tangled in kite string at the Diyasaru Park. Video by Anya Ratnayaka.

Our neighbors to the north have a brand of Chinese-made string called “manjha” which is sometimes coated with glass or steel to make it extra durable (Yeah you read that right! A thin lining of glass and steel!). Thankfully the Indian Government banned the product in 2017 but this has not ended activists having to rescue thousands of birds and other animals, who end up strung up like trussed chicken, waiting for a painful and humiliating death. Our stance and justification methods on matters such as these can be expressed from that one lyric from the popular Gypsies song, “Though it happens in India, it doesn’t happen in Sri Lanka / ඉන්දියාවේ එහෙම උනත් ලංකාවේ එහෙම වෙන්නේ නෑ” which is an extremely dangerous mentality to be harboring as the team at Urban Fishing Cat recently rescued a Purple Heron which was suffering for three days, entangled in a mess of strings.

If you are reading this and feeling a little defensive, remember that we are not trying to force you to give up flying kites, we are also not condemning or shaming those who do fly kites, and we are definitely not preaching extreme ideals over a beloved hobby. 

Instead, we are just pleading that you pick up after you are done! If your kite string gets caught up somewhere if you can remove it, remove it – mind you, we do not encourage putting yourself in danger if the string is stuck somewhere unsafe – If it is stuck somewhere inaccessible but you can see it, get help from someone and try your best to get it down. If you aren’t a kite flyer, but you happen to see strings hanging off trees, pull them down and dispose of them accordingly (Put it for recycling). 

By doing simple things such as these, an innocent life will be spared to soar free or roam unharmed for at least another day and you will be left with a huge sense of fulfillment as you made the effort to do the right thing. That’s what matters at the end, doesn’t it, doing the right thing?

To understand how big an Indian flying fox (Pteropus medius) can be, you have to see one in person. Upon seeing one up close you half expect it to swoop down, punch you in the face (because you didn’t bother to put that toffee wrapper in the bin) and growl “I’m Batman” before vanishing into the darkness. Apart from their size, they’re notorious for their mind-bogglingly large colonies on isolated, large trees in rural or urban areas, preferably near a good source of water. Why near water you might ask? Well it’s because they lose a substantial amount of water compared to their size, because of the large surface area their wings occupy. Hence, they have a large requirement for water compared to other animals of similar size and weight. 

They do tend to keep a low profile and try to keep it down a notch, but if it gets too hot (like it always does at noon in Sri Lanka) or if they have too many mouths for per fruit, they express their discomfort quite raucously (somewhat similar to a Colombo school Big Match at maximum capacity. Loud right?) and flap their wings around to regulate the excess heat. The wings of a fruit bat are highly vascularized. which means that there’s a large network blood vessels within them. So when they flap their wings the outside air cools the blood flowing through the vessels, thereby cooling their bodies effectively (DIY aircon anyone?). Living near large bodies of water also allows them to take advantage of the cool air circulating over the water, and also allows them to rehydrate easily. But when the air temperature dips and it gets comparatively cooler, they wrap their leathery wings around themselves and relax.

These bats are mainly frugivorous and nectarivorous, which means that their diet mainly consists of ripening or overripe fruits (mango, cashew plums, plantains, guava, figs and papaw) and the nectar of flowers, respectively. This is another explanation as to why they choose to roost near rural and urban areas. It is because of the ease of access to rural and urban gardens which are more often than not, full of fruit trees, unlike dense forests (inside of which bat colonies are never found). 

Bats are for the large part, nocturnal creatures and are known for their echolocation abilities which enable them to navigate around obstacles and catch prey in extremely low visibility conditions. Flying foxes on the other hand, use their keen sense of smell and large sensitive eyes to locate their favorite fruit trees. Their immense love for all things fruit has labeled them as vermin by fruit farmers, due to the sheer amount of cash crop that they consume (much like when Obelix [Jim Pappa] goes to that one restaurant and just polishes off all the dishes, causing the chef a hysterical nervous breakdown). As a result, many farmers are known to destroy any flying fox roosts that are near important crop lands. 

But the thing that most people don’t know, is that flying foxes are extremely important for the pollination and seed propagation of a large number of plant species. Thus outweighing their destructive feeding habits. Plus they tend to target overripe fruit which doesn’t have a long shelf life anyway. There are however ways of mitigating the damage caused by flying foxes to crops. Erecting netting around the crops, picking them on time, or planting Jam Fruit Trees (Muntingia sp.) around the crops would be the best sustainable method of deterrence. Why? Because they love jam fruit, and so do the pale-billed flowerpecker (Dicaeum erythrorhynchos), a bird no larger than a human palm, capable of zipping around branches like a kid on a sugar rush, while gorging down jam fruits. 

Flying foxes are highly social creatures, as evident by their large colonies. Their social structure is a male dominated hierarchy and is structured like any corporate office where higher ranked males occupy the highest branches (Penthouse for the CEO) and lower branches for the low ranks (cubicles for the executives). Males are responsible for preventing outsiders from entering their roost. Like that Nelly Furtado song, Indian flying foxes are a promiscuous bunch. That is, they are polygynandrous, aka, mate with multiple partners. Come breeding season, male testes get bigger (supply and demand) and copulation occurs after a male corners a female after a lengthy chase. Mating season is from July to October with one to two pups per litter born six months after. Pups are born feet first, enabling them to grab onto its mother as soon as it is born. Pups are looked after by the females, as males are known to shoot and scoot, and are not involved in the rearing of the cubs.

Flying foxes, though adorable and ecologically important, are vectors for several viruses that can infect humans. The main ways to curb the transmission of zoonotic diseases is to take some pretty basic preventive measures. These could be as simple as safeguarding water sources used by humans from bat poop, not consuming fruits that have been partially consumed by a flying fox or any other animal, and so on. 

The most important thing is to not eat them, no matter how exotic or adventurous it sounds. They are not a food item! Though they may be a staple diet in many indigenous cultures, if you take the time to read about them (the people not the bats!), you learn that they are riddled with horrible diseases generation after generation, because of the diseases transmitted to them through the consumption of flying foxes and other bat species. This is one of the main reasons why bushmeat consumption and the exotic wildlife trade must be strictly mitigated.