Laugh, Kingfisher

756 total words    

3 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Andy Morffew, "Coming Up Empty!" (Creative Commons license 2.0)

First snowfall: steady curtaining of the city. The silvered sky shook loose this morning. Pent up snow, like restless foals, leapt the crosstimbers and descended to the city at a gallop. Branches broke the fall—gentle, soothing hands cradling strands of white—leaving extravagant icings.


Snow of this kind has two effects on the psyche. The first seduces you to hibernation: hot tea, extra blankets, embrace of sweet torpor. The second urges you outward: nip of snowflake kisses on the cheeks, a desire to witness a world reborn, a city baptized in fragile crystal. I must walk, I tell my partner.

I trek lakeward, thinking perhaps I’ll find winter birds sailing on open water. I’m not overly concerned about my chances. Birds are not the goal, only an excuse to set a compass point for ambling, momentum to keep the body warm and in motion through a transformed world.

The snow descends at a slight slant. (Tell all the truth but tell it slant, says Emily Dickinson.) I yank my scarf above the tip of my nose, dig my bare hands deeper into my pockets, press them to the warmth of my thighs, and veer toward a path alongside an inland pond. A flotilla of Canada geese fuss on the pearled green water. The pond remains unfrozen, even at the edges, defrosted by the leftover warmth of autumn. The sky is saying winter; the ground hesitates, reluctant to accept the demand.

A chittering staccato cry reverberates against the cold, compelling me to investigate. A flash of cobalt streaks to the opposite bank. No, I think, can’t be.

A fact about living in a city where ninety percent of the birds are robins, sparrows, and starlings: you become appreciative of the oddballs. You stop, even in a snowstorm, rubbing your eyes in disbelief and opening your ears to the possible.

The chittering repeats, more insistent, and I track the cry to a willow tree that is hunkered pondside. The tree canopy shelters a patch of snowless grass. I duck under the willow, beneath its umbrella where only stray flakes of snow penetrate.

I wait. The chittering begins afresh and the bird crosses the water again, dipping his body into the green ripples as though the pond is an oversized birdbath. Out again from the limbs, swooping hammock curves over the water. Yes, for sure: kingfisher. The chittering continues in periodic bursts during aerial surveys.

Why so agitated? I wonder. Then the reason comes clear: I’m on the receiving end of a proper scolding. My bird tracking skills, according to the kingfisher, were far from sleuth-like. 

I confirm this with an attempt to draw closer. With measured steps, I make my way into the teeth of the snowfall. When I am twenty paces from the shelter of the willow-umbrella, the little slate blue Napoleon returns to his branch directly above where I was crouching.

For reasons known only to my subconscious, a song I used to sing as a child comes unbidden into my head.

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree

Merry, merry king of the bush is he

Laugh, kookaburra

Laugh, kookaburra

Gay your life must be

Why we sang that Australian ditty in Oklahoma, where I was raised, escapes me. How the tune made its way to the middle of America, I’ll never know. Why I remembered it now was more clear: family resemblances. The kingfisher family (Alcedinae) includes kookaburras of Australia and New Guinea as well as the belted kingfishers of Illinois. Kingfishers look like the muscle for avian Mafioso. Stout little prize-fighters in navy blue robes. The tough guy at this pond defends his willow instead of the corner of a boxing ring.

Prior to this encounter, I believed kingfishers were birds of summer. I took their cackling for sunny territorial music. But here he was, lashing his song and wings against an earnest snowfall, letting me know who ruled this pond.

Bird of summer, bird of winter. Bird of countryside, bird of city. Lace the air with looping flights of thread, needle the water for prey. The reward of your stitching is a full belly. My reward is sharing the weave of our world with beings like you. Survey your world on branches thrust between water and sky—and laugh, kingfisher, laugh, kingfisher, gay your life must be. Mock the screaming cars. Your stitchings will outlive the asphalt, your loops will endure beyond the Loop, your threads keep the world from falling apart. Laugh, kingfisher. Laugh, kingfisher. This willow tree, this winter day, is yours.

  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for Humans & Nature Press Books. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of the award-winning Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Humans & Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

More Stories & Ideas

Scroll to Top