Kingfishers or Alcedinidae are a family of small to medium-sized, brightly colored birds in the order Coraciiformes. They have a cosmopolitan distribution, with most species found in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and Oceania but also can be seen in Europe.
They can be found in deep forests near calm ponds and small rivers. The family contains 114 species and is divided into three subfamilies and 19 genera. All kingfishers have large heads, long, sharp, pointed bills, short legs, and stubby tails.
Most species have bright plumage with only small differences between the sexes. Most species are tropical in distribution, and a slight majority are found only in forests.
They consume a wide range of prey usually caught by swooping down from a perch. While kingfishers are usually thought to live near rivers and eat fish, many species live away from water and eat small invertebrates. Like other members of their order, they nest in cavities, usually tunnels dug into the natural or artificial banks in the ground.
Some kingfishers nest in arboreal termite nests. A few species, principally insular forms, are threatened with extinction. In Britain, the word “kingfisher” normally refers to the common kingfisher.
Distribution and habitat
The kingfishers have a cosmopolitan distribution, occurring throughout the world’s tropical and temperate regions. They are absent from the polar regions and some of the world’s driest deserts. A number of species have reached islands groups, particularly those in the south and east Pacific Ocean. The Old World tropics and Australasia are the core areas for this group. Europe and North America north of Mexico are very poorly represented, with only one common kingfisher (common kingfisher and belted kingfisher, respectively), and a couple of uncommon or very local species each: (ringed kingfisher and green kingfisher in the southwestern United States, pied kingfisher and white-throated kingfisher in southeastern Europe). The six species occurring in the Americas are four closely related green kingfishers in the genus Chloroceryle and two large crested kingfishers in the genus Megaceryle. Even tropical South America has only five species plus the wintering belted kingfisher. In comparison, the African country of the Gambia has eight resident species in its 120-by-20-mile (193 by 32 km) area.
Diet and feeding
Kingfishers feed on a wide variety of prey. They are most famous for hunting and eating fish, and some species do specialise in catching fish, but other species take crustaceans, frogs and other amphibians, annelid worms, molluscs, insects, spiders, centipedes, reptiles (including snakes), and even birds and mammals.
Individual species may specialise in a few items or take a wide variety of prey, and for species with large global distributions, different populations may have different diets.
Woodland and forest kingfishers take mainly insects, particularly grasshoppers, whereas the water kingfishers are more specialised in taking fish. The red-backed kingfisher has been observed hammering into the mud nests of fairy martins to feed on their nestlings.
Kingfishers usually hunt from an exposed perch; when a prey item is observed, the kingfisher swoops down to snatch it, then returns to the perch. Kingfishers of all three families beat larger prey on a perch to kill the prey and to dislodge or break protective spines and bones. Having beaten the prey, it is manipulated and then swallowed. Sometimes, a pellet of bones, scales and other indigestible debris is coughed up.
The shovel-billed kookaburra uses its massive, wide bill as a shovel to dig for worms in soft mud.
Facts about kingfishers
- Kingfisher adult (left) and juvenile (right) © Jon Hawkins – Surrey Hills Photography
- Kingfishers eat mainly fish, chiefly minnows and sticklebacks, but they also take aquatic insects, freshwater shrimps and tadpoles.
- They close their eyes as they dive into the water, so they are fishing blind! They bob their heads before diving to accurately judge the depth of the fish.
- Kingfisher courtship occurs in spring. The male will approach the female with a fish in his beak. He will hold it so that the head of the fish is facing outwards and attempt to feed it to the female. If he is unsuccessful he will simply eat the fish himself. He may have to repeat this feeding behaviour for some time before mating occurs.
- A kingfisher pair dig a nest tunnel in vertical, sandy river banks. The nest chamber at the end has a slight depression to prevent eggs rolling out, but no material is brought into the nest.
- The first clutch of 6-7 eggs is laid in late March or in early April. Each chick can eat 12-18 fish a day meaning the adults may catch over 120 fish each day for their brood.
- Chicks are fed in rotation. Once a chick is fed, it moves to the back of the nest to digest its meal, causing the others to move forward.
- Once out of the nest, the young are fed for only four days before the adults drive them out of the territory and start the next brood. 2-3 broods are often raised in a breeding season.
- The design of a kingfisher’s beak is aerodynamically efficient, allowing it to dive from its perch, towards its prey, with maximum speed and minimum splash. In fact, the beak design is so clever that the front of many Japanese bullet trains are modelled to mimic it