Kingfisher: Death from Above

Here’s everything we know about this fantastic bird.

Basics: 

  • Kingfishers are a family of birds found all over the world—though most species live in Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
  • There are over 100 described species.
  • Most species have big heads, long pointy bills, small legs, and short tails (but some species have very long tails)
  • They’re known for diving to catch their prey, which is usually fish, but many species eat other small animals.
  • Some species such as the marquesan, blue-banded, mangareva, and sangihe dwarf kingfishers are critically endangered mostly due to habitat degradation.

Evolution

  • Kingfishers seem to have originated in the Southeast Asia about 27 million years ago.
  • From there they radiated and went to all the continents except Antarctica.
  • The region with the highest number of species is Australasia.

Biology

Kingfishers are divided into three subfamilies: 

Tree Kingfishers

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
  • Over 70 species including several kookaburras
  • They’re most common in Asia and Oceania and are often found in tropical rainforests and open woodlands.
  • They prey on/eat small vertebrates and some invertebrates.
  • They’re colourful and look like your classic medium to large kingfisher. The main exceptions are the shovel billed kookaburra, which has a broad conical bill (unique among kingfishers) adapted to search for worms in the mud. And the paradise kingfishers (genus tanysiptera) which have distinctive long tail streamers

River Kingfishers

  • 35 species found in the Old World and Australia.
  • This is the most common Kingfisher. When people in Europe think of kingfishers, this is the species they picture.
  • Photo by Sumruay Rattanataipob
  • River kingfishers have long bills and short tails. They’re also bright and colourful.  
  • They eat fish, and in some cases, insects. Interestingly enough, the kingfishers’ bill colour can tell you what they eat. Insectivorous species have red bills and fish eaters have black bills.
  • Insectivorous river kingfishers can catch flying insects in midair.
  • Fish-specialists will also take other small animals from the water and from the shore.
  • This is the more basal of the three subfamilies.

Water Kingfishers

  • There are only nine water kingfisher species. Six of them are found in the Americas.
  • The fact that there are so few species in the Americas suggests that  there were only 2 colonizing events in the western hemisphere.
  • They’re all fish specialists.

Photo by Marek CECH

  • The most common of them is the Amazon kingfisher
  • Sizes vary from 10 cm (African dwarf) to 45 cm (giant kingfisher). The common kingfisher is about 16 cm and the Amazon kingfisher is about 30 cm long. The belted kingfisher is slightly larger at about 33 cm.
  • The heaviest species is the laughing kookaburra, at about 500 grams. (Fry, harris, p. 133)
  • The brightness of their plumage is due to the Tyndall effect.
    • Light hits the feathers and gets scattered—reflecting mostly blue light (this is the same thing that happens to people with blue eyes)
    • In general terms, fish-eating kingfishers have long bills, and those who catch animals off the ground have shorter bills.
  • Like other predatory birds, their eyes are large for their head and have restrictive movement within the eye sockets.
  • They also seem to intuitively understand water refraction and compensate for it to hunt more effectively.
  • They have nictitating membranes to protect their eyes when they hit the water.

Behaviour

  • Kingfishers nest in holes, most commonly tunnels on the ground.
    • Some species such as the forest kingfisher nest in tree cavities, fallen trees, and arboreal termite nests.
  • Most species are monogamous and very territorial.
    • Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the chicks.
    • Some species exhibit cooperative breeding, where other kingfishers help the parents raise the young. Maybe the most common example is laughing kookaburra.
    • The nests are made in holes, in anything from tree bark, termite nests, human structures, the ground, etc. depending on the species.
    • The giant kingfisher is known to dig tunnels up 8.5 m long.
    • The eggs are always white and shiny, and babies stay with parents up to 4 months.
  • Woodland species are more likely to be insectivorous, while water kingfishers are fish-specialists.
    • Red-backed kingfishers in Australia are known to feed on other bird’s nestlings.
    • Their hunting strategy consists on perching on a branch or hovering in the air and then swooping down to catch their prey. If its larger prey, they hit it from above in order to stun it, incapacitate it, or kill it on impact.

Kingfishers of Costa Rica

  • Costa Rica has the six American species of kingfisher: Four of them have green backs and all members of the genus chloroceryle (American pigmy, Green-and-rufous, Amazon, and Green Kingfishers) and two have blue backs and relatively large crests (ringed and belted kingfishers). You might be able to identify them by the colour of their chest.

Kingfishers of North America

  • The same species that live in Costa Rica also live in Mexico and the southern United States. The only species that lives in the northern US and Canada is the belted kingfisher. (We have them year round in Toronto)
  • Canada has even put the kingfisher on their money!
  • Check out the 1986 version of the $5 bill: 
Photo courtesy of MTL Blog.
  •  The best place to see these magnificent birds near Toronto is in the lagoons on the west side of Bluffers Park. They’re also seen at Pumphouse marsh in Oshawa, Halls Road in Whitby, and Frenchmans bay in Pickering.

Fun Facts:

  • The oriental dwarf kingfisher is considered a bad omen by the Dusun people of Borneo and if you’re on the way to a fight and see one, you should go back home.
  • The banded kingfisher however is considered a good omen.
  • The sacred kingfisher was believed to control the sea and waves, and was venerated by the Polynesians.
  • The phrase halcyon days refer to kingfishers. Halcyon was the greek word for kingfishers. There was a myth where two lovers Alcyone and Ceyx died but were saved by the Gods and turned into kingfishers. Since they nested by the water, waves could destroy their nests, so the Gods granted them seven days of calm waters a year to lay their eggs in peace. Those were the halcyon days. Obviously now it has a different meaning, and it basically means “the good old days”.

 

Scientific Classification