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Monday, September 2, 2013

Ryukyu Kingfisher

I like birds. I'd never have one as a pet, but I like'em well enough. Maybe it's because they are relatives to the dinosaurs.

In fact, the first two science projects I ever did in Grade 3 as a six-year-old (I was ahead of the curve), that my son is now heading into, were on dinosaurs and the Greak Auk, a penguin-like bird that was beaten into extinction by man around 1844 because it's skin and eggs were prized by collectors.

I also recall reading about the Carolina Parakeet, that became extinct around 1918, that was the only parrot-type bird from America, and the Passenger Pigeon, that in the 1880s was so heavy in numbers that's flights darkened the skies - until man thought it wise to shoot them from the skies... with the last one, Martha, dying on September 1 at 1PM in 1914... 99 years ago to the day as I write this.

And... the dodo... that wonderful creature from Alice in Wonderland (my favorite book). Of course you all know that the author Lewis Carroll, was actually named Charles Dodgson... and he wrote himself into the book as the dodo... because when he stuttered, and Dodgson did, when he said his name, he was Do-do-dodgson.

Like I said... I like birds. Or maybe I just like extinct birds. That would be horrible.

So... I thought to myself... what are some of the extinct birds with a history to Japan? I found a few... and a few others near extinction... all of which I will note in this blog some day.

Anyhow... I'm reading a large tome these days: Extinct Birds by Errol Fuller, published a good 13 years ago in 2000. And, although it only mentions a few Japanese birds, it did mention today's topic.
Let's take a brief look at the somewhat unspectacular life of the semi-mythical Ryukyu Kingfisher (Todiramphus miyakoensis). This is a bird that certainly existed as far as flesh, blood and feathers are concerned... but it is only known from a single, solitary specimen.

So... is this a real bird? Yes. But is it a separate species? That's where things get hazy, and I wonder why more DNA research isn't being done.

The known specimen - is a male, and is a kingfisher supposedly caught on the Japanese island of Miyako-jima, which is the main island of the Ryukyu chain of island, south of Japan proper.

This is all according to a tag placed on it back on February 5, 1887. Of course... specimen labels can be mislabeled.

Now... there is another bird known as the Micronesian Kingfisher (Halcyon cinnamomina). that is considered a near relative of our lonesome dove, that is still found on Guam (extinct in the wild), Ponape and the Palau Islands. The Micronesian bird has a black beak, with an area of pale yellow at the base of the lower jaw.

Our Ryukyu specimen, however seems to lack the horny covering on its beak, so actual beak color can not be determined.

Okay... so it seems like they could be the same damn bird... BUT... there is a difference.

It's the color of their feet.

The Micronesian Kingfisher has olive brown feet, while the Ryukyu Kingfisher has red... and lacks a black nape band.

Now... there is no reason why a Micronesian Kingfisher wouldn't have landed on a Japanese Island and then developed characteristics to make it distinct.

Here's what that single Ryukyu specimen looked like (see painting above painted by Errol Fuller, author of Extinct Birds):
Vital Statistics: Length: 24 centimeters (24 inches);
Color: Lore: blackish. The lore is the area between the eye and bill on the side of a bird's head. It has a small whitish-blue patch over its eyes, with a green-blue stripe under the eye, widening to the cheek (side of the nape). The rest of the head and neck is a chestnut cinnamon color. It's scapulars (shoulder feathers) and back is a dark blue green; lower back and upper tail coverts are cobalt blue; primaries are brown black; wing coverts and tail are ultramarine tinged green; underparts are cinnamon being the darkest on the breast.
Bill color is undetermined. feet are dark red with brown claws.
Wings: 10.5 centimeters (4.1 inches)
Tail: 8.0 centimeters (3.15 inches)
Culmen (upper part of the beak): 3.8 centimeters (1.5 inches)
Tarsus: 1.7 centimeters (0.67 inches). The
tarsus is the part of a bird's leg between the backward-facing knee and what appears to be an ankle.

Part of mystery surrounding the Ryukyu Kingfisher is that it actually took 30 years after its discovery, for a scientist to look through the collection and determine that it might indeed be a distinct species... plus... no one ever found another specimen.

But... even by 1887, when it was captured and killed for scientific research, the island of Miyako-jima was already in the process of being drained of its wetlands and land cleared - for human agricultural purposes.

It is possible, therefore, that, for reasons I have already outlined (a few birds from Micronesian migrating to Japan and setting up shop there), might have always meant that the population was small... and it was a simple matter for that sub-species of kingfisher to have become extinct.

Ahhhh, Kyushu Kingfisher.... we hardly knew ya.

Andrew Joseph

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