Class: Aves (Birds)
Height: largest—laughing kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae, up to 18 inches (46 centimeters); smallest—African dwarf kingfisher Ceyx lecontei, 3.9 inches (10 centimeters)
Weight: largest—laughing kookaburra, up to 17 ounces (490 grams); smallest—African dwarf kingfisher 0.3 to 0.4 ounces (9 to 12 grams)
Life span: up to 15 years
Number of eggs: 2 to 10, usually 3 to 6
Incubation: 2 to 4 weeks, depending on species
Age of maturity: about 1 year
Conservation status: the Marquesas kingfisher Todiramphus godeffroyi and the Micronesian kingfisher Todiramphus cinnamomina are endangered, 7 species are listed as vulnerable due to habitat loss.
The most famous kingfisher is
kookaburra. It gets its name from its call, which sounds like
laughter. Kookaburras make this call in pairs or groups,
most often at dusk and dawn. An Australian Aborigine
legend says that the gods chose the kookaburra to
wake the people and animals at the start of each day.
Sacred kingfishers Todiramphus sanctus are aggressive and fearless in defending their nests. They have been known to attack animals that come too close, like weasels, cats, dogs, and other birds.
When a common kingfisher Alcedo atthis dives after a meal, it often submerges completely in the water, folding its wings backward to create a V shape. It can even dive straight through a layer of thin ice to catch a fish below!
Many kingfishers can eat prey that seem too large to fit in their mouths. For example, the Amazon kingfisher Chloroceryle amazona has a bill about 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) long but can eat a fish that is 6.7 inches (17 centimeters) long!
As of September 2012, the San Diego Zoo has had 61 Micronesian kingfisher hatchings.
Range: Majority of species found in Asia, Africa, Australia, and
South America; some species in Europe and North America
Kingfishers are known for their looks: stocky bodies, long, thick bills, and striking colors and markings. Many species are decked out in feathers of bright blue, green, turquoise, red, or gold. Some have splotches, dashes, stripes, or speckles. The dagger-shaped bill often seems too long or too big for the rest of the bird, but it is well designed for capturing food. Most kingfishers have short legs and strong feet, since they spend most of their time perched on a stalk, twig, or branch while keeping an eye out for a meal. Even though they are chunky birds, kingfishers are fast flyers. Some, like the pied kingfisher Ceryle rudis, can even flap their wings fast enough to hover over water. Kingfishers like to keep clean and bathe by diving into water, then perching in the sun to dry and preen their feathers. Some use their wings to scrub and scratch the top of their heads. They also keep their impressive bills clean by scraping them against a branch, first one side, then the other, until they are satisfied that the bill is in good condition.
The king of fishers
As you might guess, kingfishers do eat fish. Many, like the common kingfisher Alcedo atthis and the azure kingfisher Alcedo azurea, are piscivores. Kingfishers are very good at catching prey. They perch above a stream, river, or lake and watch the water, waiting for a fish to swim into view. A few do hunt for food on the ground, like the shovel-billed kingfisher Clytoceyx rex and the banded kingfisher Lacedo pulchella. All kingfishers have excellent vision and can see into the water—even adjusting for refraction, which can make a fish look closer to the surface than it really is. The sacred kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus can see prey that is almost 100 yards (90 meters) away! The bird darts out and dives down to snatch up the fish, then returns to the perch to prepare its meal. The kingfisher beats the fish against the perch to break the bones for easier swallowing. It then juggles the fish in its beak and swallows it head first, to avoid getting scraped by the scales on the way down.
Even kingfishers that eat mostly fish also eat other things on occasion, like crabs, crayfish, snails, and frogs. Kingfishers that live in forests, grasslands, and deserts have a different diet, dining on a variety of insects, spiders, reptiles, and small mammals, which they catch by spying the prey from a perch and darting out to snap it up. Even snakes are sometimes on the menu: the blue-winged kookaburra Dacelo leachii is known as a snake hunter, grabbing a snake behind the head and bashing it against a branch or rock to kill it. Swallowing it is a bit tricky: the snake goes down head first, but the rest of the body hangs out of the kookaburra’s mouth while it is digested bit by bit!
Kingfishers don’t build nests of sticks or plants. Instead, they nest in burrows that they dig into dirt banks, tree cavities, or old termite mounds. A male and female pair works together to create the burrow, taking turns digging out the soil with their feet. The burrow takes about three to seven days to complete. It often slopes upward to avoid flooding and is usually about 3 to 6.5 feet (1 to 2 meters) long, although the record is a 28-foot (8.5-meter) burrow dug by a pair of giant kingfishers Megaceryle maxima. The burrow ends in a nesting chamber that is about 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) wide and 6 to 7 inches (15 to 17 centimeters) high. This is where the eggs are laid and the chicks raised. At first the parents bring food all the way into the nesting chamber, but as the altricial chicks grow they start to move toward the burrow’s entrance to meet the adults. Eventually, they perch at the entrance or even on a branch nearby, waiting to be fed. After fledging (growing their flight feathers and learning to fly), it can be a few days to a few weeks, depending on the species, before the chicks start finding and catching their own food.
Kingfishers are territorial birds. They stake out an area with good food sources, convenient perches, and a safe place to roost at night. They are most active in the morning and evening, but if it’s not too hot they may also hunt during the afternoon. Kingfishers have a variety of calls used to announce their territory, warn off other birds, and communicate with a mate and their chicks, such as shrieks, screams, clicks, whistles, chuckles, rattles, and chirps. The most famous call, though, is the laughing kookaburra’s, a “kooa haha haha” that sounds like someone laughing. You might have heard this sound used in movies set in the jungles of Africa or South America—although this kookaburra is really only native to Australia!
Kookaburras also stand out in another way: they are one of the few kingfishers that live in groups. Most kingfisher species are solitary, only pairing up with a mate during breeding season. But laughing kookaburras and blue-winged kookaburras live in family groups made up of a male and female pair and their older offspring, which help the pair raise new chicks. Even more unusual is that these “helpers” are mostly males instead of females. So for kookaburras (along with a few other species), it’s the uncles that help feed and protect the chicks, not the aunts!