Kingfishers (family Alcedines)

There are a lot of funny-looking birds out there. Some are brightly coloured in strange ways, while some just have ridiculous feathers (I’m thinking of you, peacocks). Others have stupid body shapes and still others go further by making their beaks as strange as possible. Still, I think the champion for most weird looking (maybe not by degree of weirdness, but simply by having the most number of odd characteristics) is the kingfisher. As a group of birds, species of kingfisher have at least one funny-looking trait, and for a lot of them I could make the argument they have the total package.

Kingfishers are widespread, with over 90 species living on all continents except Antarcitca. They are either all grouped together into the family Alcedines, or split into three families, comprising the river kingfishers, tree kingfishers, and water kingfishers. They can live in a number of different habitats, and although they are traditionally associated with rivers and other sources of water, they actually often live in other habitats, such as forests, mountains, deserts and farmland. In other words, kingfishers are very versatile little birds.

I’ve already said that kingfishers are funny-looking, which probably has something to do with their large heads, short necks, stubby tails, and giant, ridiculous beaks. All kingfishers have similarly shaped bills, though there is variation in the bill shape depending on the bird’s diet. For example, those that eat flies and other insects have dorsoventrally flattened beaks, while fish eater’s bills are laterally flatted. Kingfishers range in size from 10cm and 10.4g to 45cm and 355g or more. They are almost all brightly coloured, the most common colours being green and blue. Interestingly, the blue colour on kingfishers is not caused by a pigment, but actually by the birds’ feather shape, which scatters blue light and makes the feathers appear blue.

An oriental dwarf kingfisher, chilling on its perch.

An oriental dwarf kingfisher, chilling on its perch.

Kingfishers have some special adaptations which make them excellent prey hunters. In particular they have excellent vision, and have very good binocular sight. They can’t move their eyes very well in their head, so they have to move their heads around rapidly while tracking prey (I can only imagine how silly that looks). Kingfishers (especially the ones that hunt fish) have very good depth perception, and can tell how deep a fish is in the water, even with the refraction and reflection caused by the water. Kingfishers like to hunt from a perch. When they find a good spot kingfishers will do everything from there. They bring their prey back to the perch, even using it to whack their prey on to kill it. Once they eat their prey on the perch, kingfishers go right back to hunting, and repeat this process until they are sated. Kingfishers also have a special covering that protects their eye as they dive into water. In the pied kingfisher this is taken a bit further, with a bony plate that slides across the eye. It probably looks really creepy, but i’m sure it does the job.

An incredible shot of a kingfisher diving for fish. Photo credit to Koen Cuppens.

An incredible shot of a kingfisher diving for fish. Photo credit to Koen Cuppens.

Most kingfishers are monogamous birds, and nest in cavities, either in the ground or in trees. In tree species the favoured nest is in termite nests in the trees, while ground nesting species have to dig their own holes. This duty is shared by both sexes, and can be a dangerous job. When the initial digging is occurring, kingfishers will fly at the site quite hard, sometimes fatally injuring themselves. I’m sure there’s got to be an easier way to dig a nest. Maybe kingfishers should invest in shovels. Still, kingfisher tunnels can be quite elaborate; those of the giant kingfisher have been found to be up to 8.5m long.

A silly looking yellow-billed kingfisher.

A silly looking yellow-billed kingfisher.

Despite their odd looks, kingfishers are very interesting, and almost pretty birds. They have bright feathers, which always makes birds look nice, but I still can’t get over their weird shape. Still, they are fascinating birds, and everyone should like them.

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One thought on “Kingfishers (family Alcedines)

  1. Pingback: Motmot (family Momotidae) | Our Wild World

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