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Mediterranean tropical plumages.

The fish of the world's coral reefs and the birds of the tropics are with reason generally regarded as the most eye-catching of all living creatures. Rich and strident colors are common: the exaggerated technicolor array of macaws, toucans, and birds of paradise, for example, a whole spectrum of colors, is set off by delicate plumage textures or by plain but glossy, outsize bills. Although if you look closely enough, you can often discover beautiful shades of color in many of the commonest Mediterranean birds, such as goldfinches and tits, none of them can compare with the brilliance of tropical birds. Yet there is one exception--the birds of the order Coraciiformes, which include the kingfishers and bee-eaters, avian ambassadors from the luxuriant tropics to temperate Mediterranean latitudes.

For all intents and purposes, the Coraciiformes are tropical birds. It is a diverse order, made up of roughly two hundred species, which can be grouped into ten different families. Four of these families are to be found in Mediterranean climates: two, the Alcedinidae, or kingfishers, and the Meropidae, or bee-eaters, are closely allied to the Todidae and the Momotidae of the West Indies and tropical America. The third family is the Coraciidae, or rollers, which are related to the Brachypteraciidae and Leptosomatidae, two families endemic to Madagascar. The fourth and last family is the Upupidae or hoopoes, distantly related to the Phoeniculidae, or wood-hoopoes, of tropical Africa and the Bucerotidae, or hornbills, of tropical Africa and Asia. Half a dozen of the more than one hundred species of kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers and hoopoes that live in the globe's temperate and hot zones are found in the Mediterranean Basin, and a more attractive half-dozen would be hard to find.

The kingfishers are the fishermen of the group, as their common names in many languages illustrate (martin pescador, martin-pecheur, etc.). Their crafty look and disproportionately long bills and short tails give them a characteristically waggish and colorful air as they sit watchful, alert and erect on any convenient branch. Nevertheless, in the blink of an eye, they dive down like an arrow at their prey, normally an unwary freshwater fish swimming too close to the surface. Without worrying about getting a good soaking, the kingfisher momentarily submerges itself, with all its plumage, in the water. All kingfishers have beautiful plumages: the blues and reds of the common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), widespread throughout the Mediterranean Basin (as well as Central and Eastern Europe, India and southeast Asia, China and Japan) contrast with the brown and bluish white-breasted kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), found on the coastline of Turkey and the near East (as well as India and Southeast Asia). Then there is the more simplified black and white patterning of the pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) which overlaps in range with the Smyrna kingfisher but also extends throughout almost the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, as far as the Cape mediterranean. In the Californian mediterranean, the belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) is sometimes seen, a vagrant from more northerly latitudes which occasionally even strays as far as Europe.

The bee-eaters are the very essence of greenness. Strictly speaking, in the Mediterranean Basin there is only one species of bee-eater (Merops apiaster). This bird, with its forked tail, a myriad of different colors and graceful lines, is arguably the most attractive of the world's 24 species of bee-eater, all of which are essentially green. All have the same taste for the bees and other members of the Hymenoptera that form their staple diet. Two African and eastern species, the blue-cheeked bee-eater (M. superciliosus) and the little green bee-eater (M. orientalis) are present in the Nile delta. The common bee-eater of southern Europe and North Africa is also found in the Middle East and the southern tip of Africa, where the familiar environmental conditions of the Mediterranean Basin reappear.

The roller (Coracias garrulus) which, apart from South Africa, has the same range as the European bee-eater, is a bird of lightly wooded areas. Its robust, sturdy form and unmistakable brown, blue, and black plumage are similar in all the various African, Indian and southeast Asian species of roller (C. abys-sinicus, C. benghalensis and Eurystomus glaucurus).

Lastly, we have the hoopoe (Upupa epops) with its predominantly earthy tones and outlandish call and appearance. Its raised crest and the sound of its onomatopoeic song are unforgettable. It is a confiding and friendly bird which nests in cracks and holes in tree-trunks, rocks, or walls and is distributed throughout practically the whole of Europe, Asia and Africa, only lacking from colder and desert areas.

Kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers and hoopoes bring the colors of the tropics to the Mediterranean world.
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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
Previous Article:Proteaceae: at the service of Hephaestus or of Poseidon?
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