Kingfishers: Alcedinidae

views updated

KINGFISHERS: Alcedinidae



Kingfishers are vibrant birds both in appearance and behavior, with a long pointed bill, small weak feet, large head, compact body, short neck, and very short legs. The bill and feet are usually black or brown but may be yellow, orange, or red. The bill's shape depends on feeding habits: narrow and flattened at the sides in species that hunt prey by water diving; broad and flattened with distinct upper and lower surfaces in species that catch small ground animals; or especially wide in forest species that search for prey in soil and leaf litter. The feet have three front toes that are fused at their bases. In some species, the second toe is shortened or absent. The metallic-looking plumage is often black, white, or reddish brown, with areas of iridescent blue, purple, or green. Wings are short and rounded, while the tail varies from extremely short to very long. Kingfishers are 4 to 18 inches (10 to 48 centimeters) long, and weigh between 0.3 and 16.4 ounces (9 and 465 grams).


Kingfishers are found on all continents except Antarctica, but are unevenly distributed with regard to species. Most species that live in forests are found in Australia, New Guinea, and Indonesia east of Bali and Sulawesi. Others are found on the islands of the Pacific, in western Indonesia, the islands of Java, Borneo, Sumatra, and the Philippines. A few species are found on the Asian mainland, in India, and the Middle East. Species that live in savannas, grasslands, are found mostly in the tropical region of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.


Kingfishers are found throughout aquatic or wooded habitats, avoiding open country. They range from arid savannas to dense rainforests, and from low seacoasts to high mountains. Species that feed on aquatic animals are found from arid (dry, little rainfall) seashores to small mountain streams. Species that feed on land animals are found from arid savannas to dense rainforests.


Most kingfishers consume relatively large invertebrates, especially grasshoppers, earthworms, and crustaceans, as well as small vertebrates, especially reptiles, fishes, and amphibians. A few species eat fruit. They spend much time perched in a stationary position on the lookout for prey, animals they hunt for food, swooping down to grab prey from the ground, water, air, or leaves.


Most species are sedentary (tending not to move), and nearly all are diurnal (active during the day). Many of them bathe by diving repeatedly into water. The majority of species roost alone within vegetation. They all are highly vocal. Loud calls warn visitors that they have ventured into kingfisher territories, while softer calls are communications between mates or with offspring.

To attract females, male kingfishers perform courtship rituals such as aerial displays, plumage, feather, exposure, and feeding of females. Both sexes play roles in selecting and digging nest sites, usually in earthen banks, but also in rotten wood, termite nests, or tree hollows. They dig by flying into the surface bill-first, then loosening debris with the bill, and later by kicking out loosened materials with feet. A tunnel is built that can extend from 3 to 26 feet (1 to 8 meters), ending in an unlined nest cavity.

The white, round, shiny eggs are laid one a day with two to seven eggs in a clutch. Both sexes take part in incubation and care of young. Females remain on the nest overnight. Incubation takes from two to four weeks, and the nestling period is from three to eight weeks. Babies are born blind and naked. Feathers emerge with quills (hollow feather shafts). They become independent a few days to about a week after learning to fly, and become sexually mature within a year.


Some people hunt kingfishers when the birds eat fish commercially raised on farms. In the past, some kingfishers were stuffed for the beauty of their plumes and feathers, and other feathers were worn as hair decorations. Often the call of kingfishers was seen as an omen. The laughing kookaburra is an important symbol of Australia.


The main threats to kingfishers are the clearing, draining, or polluting of rainforest habitats. Twelve species are considered threatened by extinction, dying out, and at least two subspecies have become extinct. Threatened species are found in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, including New Zealand and Australia.


Physical characteristics: Laughing kookaburras are the largest of the kingfishers, with a dark brown and white body, blue rump, and reddish tail with white-tipped outer tail feathers and blue-tipped wing coverts (feathers between flight feathers of the wing and tail). They have a dark stripe through their eyes. The blunt, heavy bill is black in color above and horn-colored below. Their small feet are used mainly for perching. They are from 15 to 17 inches (39 to 42 centimeters) long, and weigh between 7 and 16 ounces (190 and 465 grams).

Geographic range: Laughing kookaburras are located in eastern and southwestern Australia.

Habitat: Laughing kookaburras are found in dry and open eucalyptus forests and woodlands, and often are seen in parks and gardens that border such areas.

Diet: Laughing kookaburras eat mostly insects, beetles, grasshoppers, and spiders, but also eat small vertebrates, such as snakes, lizards, mice, and small birds. When spotting prey, they swoop down to pick up small animals. They usually eat alone.

Behavior and reproduction: A breeding pair and its mature offspring are often heard cackling at dawn. When in defense of their territory, laughing kookaburras often have their heads stretched up and tails raised while making cackling sounds. During the day, they are often seen perched motionless in dense foliage, looking for prey.

The male and female breed for life, and share the raising of their latest brood with older offspring. Nests are usually made in natural cavities, but can be formed from termite nests or soft dead wood. Females lay from one to five eggs. The incubation period is between twenty-four and twenty-nine days, with the female performing most of the duties, and other members performing other chores. The nestling period is from thirty-two to forty days. Young birds stay with their parents for several years as helpers.

Laughing kookaburras and people: People in Australia are very familiar with the life of laughing kookaburras, and the birds are a well-known emblem of the country.

Conservation status: Laughing kookaburras are not threatened, being widespread and common. In fact, the species grows in numbers when humans develop previously undeveloped areas such as parks and gardens, where the birds can safely look for food under leaf litter and mulch. ∎


Physical characteristics: Rufous-collared kingfishers are medium-sized, plump kingfishers, with a green crown (top of the head); blue (in males) and buff-spotted green (in females) back; and rufous (red) coloring on and below the collar. The bill is black above and yellow below. Rufous-collared kingfishers are 9 to 9.5 inches (22.9 to 24.1 centimeters) long, and weigh between 2.1 and 3.2 ounces (59.5 and 90.7 grams).

Geographic range: Rufous-collared kingfishers are commonly found on the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, and Sumatra.

Habitat: Rufous-collared kingfishers are usually found in dense, lowland rainforests, and sometimes in secondary forests (that is, in forests where new vegetation has formed after the original vegetation of the forest has been destroyed either by nature or by humans). They are found up to 5,600 feet (1,700 meters) above sea level.

Diet: They feed on various arthropods; mostly insects and large scorpions, but also fish, snails, small snakes, and lizards. They catch prey by dropping from a low perch to snatch the prey off the water surface or off the ground. Occasionally, they turn over leaves in search of food.

Behavior and reproduction: When calling out, rufous-collared kingfishers produce a loud, long whistle that rises in tone. They perch mostly in the middle and lower levels of forests. When perched, they will regularly show a slow bobbing head and pumping tail.

Monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus) pairs, birds mated only with each other, usually dig nest burrows in earthen banks, but also use rotten tree trunks. They dig out tunnels that end in a nest chamber about 8 inches (20 centimeters) in diameter. Females usually lay two eggs, which are incubated for about twenty-two days.

Rufous-collared kingfishers and people: There is no known significance between people and rufous-collared kingfishers.

Conservation status: Rufous-collared kingfishers are considered Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction, due to extensive removal of lowland forests, but continue to survive in hill forests and in conserved tracts. ∎


Physical characteristics: Belted kingfishers are large kingfishers with a stocky blue-gray body, white breast and collar, and large head. It is one of the few North American birds in which females are more colorful than males. Males have blue-gray upperparts with a plain blue-gray band across the breast and appear to have a big head with a large bill and shaggy, double-pointed crest. A white spot appears around its eyes. Females have a blue-gray breast band with a rufous band below. In flight, it shows a white patch on the upper wing. Juveniles of both sexes resemble adult females. They are 11 to 13 inches (28 to 33 centimeters) long, about 20 inches (51 centimeters) in wing span, and weigh between 4 and 6.3 ounces (113 and 178 grams).

Geographic range: Belted kingfishers are found across the north-central United States and southern Canada, and south throughout the United States, except for southwestern and far south-central regions and southern Florida. During the summer breeding season, belted kingfishers migrate from about 65° north latitude to nearly the Arctic Circle. During nonbreeding winter, the birds migrate to the southwestern United States and central America, south to the Galápagos Islands and Guyana.

Habitat: Belted kingfishers are found around wooded freshwater bodies such as lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and estuaries or calm marine waters. They range from the seashore to 8,200 feet (2,500 meters) above sea level. During nonbreeding seasons, they gather in mangroves, coasts, watercourses in open country, marshes, and offshore islands.

Diet: Belted kingfishers eat fish, but also take amphibians, reptiles, insects, crustaceans, crayfish, mollusks, small mammals, young birds, and berries. They hunt in the late morning or afternoon. Sometimes the birds follow egrets for prey that they disturb. They hunt for food by either perching from trees or by hovering from 20 to 49 feet (6 to 15 meters) above streams or ponds. Often, they plunge headfirst into waters, catching most prey within 2 feet (60 centimeters) of the surface. They pound captured prey against their perch with sideways head movements.

Behavior and reproduction: Belted kingfishers fly with irregular wing beats. They are easily seen in tree perches that overlook water or on coastal rocks. Their territorial call is a long, uneven rattle. They also have a higher, shorter, more musical trill sound.

Belted kingfishers are monogamous birds, with both parents helping to dig out a tunnel and nest in an earthen bank that is within easy reach of water. They usually dig down from 3 to 7 feet (1 to 2 meters) below the ground surface but can go down to 15 feet (4 meters), with a nest cavity of 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) in diameter. Females lay from five to eight eggs, which are incubated between twenty-two and twenty-four days and nested between twenty-seven and thirty-five days. Males and females share incubation (sitting on eggs), brooding (providing warmth and shelter by gathering chicks under the breast or wing), and feeding duties. They have from one to two broods (groups of young birds) per year.

Belted kingfishers and people: Before regulations, people sometimes hunted belted kingfishers when they fed on fish stocks at fish hatcheries and along trout streams.

Conservation status: Belted kingfishers are not threatened. They are widespread and common in many areas, being more resistant to pollution than most other kingfishers. ∎



Alsop, Fred J. III. Birds of North America. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2001.

AOU Check-list of North American Birds, 7th ed. Washington, DC: The American Ornithologists' Union, 1998.

Elphick, Chris, John B. Dunning Jr., and David Allen Sibley, eds. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Forshaw, Joseph, ed. Encyclopedia of Birds, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998.

Kaufman, Kenn. Birds of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Perrins, Christopher M., and Alex L. A. Middleton, eds. The Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Facts on File, 1985.

Web sites:

Coraciiformes Taxon Advisory Group. (accessed on July 19, 2004).