KINGFISHERS: A LARGE AND DIVERSE FAMILY
Contact Call | Volume 10 Number 3 | September 2021
The name ‘kingfisher’ refers to the rich ‘royal’ blue plumage and mainly fish diet of some kingfishers, although only about a third inhabit wetlands, the rest being ‘dryland’ birds.
The Latin word for kingfisher is ’alcedo‘, from the Greek ’alkyon’ meaning ‘born of the sea’. This was Latinised to ‘Halcyon’, the generic name of some kingfishers. ’Dacelo‘, the genus of kookaburras, is an anagram of ’alcedo’. The ancient Greeks believed that kingfishers nested on the open sea, and called them ‘halkyons’: ‘hal’ meaning sea, and ‘kyon’ meaning conceiving. In Greek mythology, Alcyone (‘Alcedo’ in Latin) married Ceyx, who subsequently died in a shipwreck. Alcyone was devastated and drowned herself in the sea, so the sympathetic gods turned them both into kingfishers. This myth lives on in the scientific naming of some kingfishers.
Kingfishers are in the family Alcedinidae (Rafinesque, 1815) which has been divided into three subfamilies: the Alcedininae (‘river kingfishers’), Halcyoninae (Vigors, 1825) (‘forest or tree kingfishers’), and Cerylinae (‘water kingfishers’), comprising specifically fish-eating kingfishers in the Americas, Africa and Asia.
It’s believed that kingfishers evolved in the Old World Indo-Malayan region, probably at least 30 million years ago, and radiated out to all continents except Antarctica. Today Africa, South-east Asia and Australasia retain the greatest number of species: Planet Earth has approximately 100-110 species, of which Australia has almost 10%.
The Alcedinidae have long slender bills (like tweezers - better for hunting fish), and are more lightly built than the Halcyoninae which have broader bills (sometimes hooked at the tip) for taking prey from the ground. The latter is a more primitive, larger and more diversified family that doesn’t necessarily need to be near water, and occupies more varied habitats. For some species these include being near water or on coasts, while others ‘hang out’ in dry forest or open country.
Taxonomically, kingfishers are characterised by having their front toes joined for more than a third of their length – a condition known as ‘syndactyly’ - that forms a scoop for nest-digging. Other less obvious characteristics include the form of their leg muscles, how their tendons and leg muscles are attached, and the distribution and arrangement of their feathers.
Most of their other physical characteristics make them easily recognisable. The oversized bill, short neck, top-heavy appearance, thickset body, usually short tail and legs, and blue (which is usually due to feather structure, not pigment) of at least some feathers distinguish a kingfisher. Some people comment that a kookaburra looks just like a big kingfisher, not necessarily realising they have recognised the characteristics that make the group unique.
Most kingfishers are brightly coloured mainly in greens and blues (blues particularly on the wings), with patches of white and variations of red. In some species the underparts are shades of rufous or orange, e.g. Azure Kingfisher. Even Cape York Peninsula’s Yellow-billed Kingfisher, though mainly orange and green, has a blue rump and tail. Some kingfishers are marked with bars or spots, and differences between male and female in most kingfishers is minimal.
Only the widespread (Africa, Middle East and Asia) Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudi) is entirely black and white. The male has two black bars across the white underparts, the upper bar wider and usually partly broken in the middle. Females have just one narrower breast bar.
Kingfishers range in size from the tiny 10 cm African Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta) – the world’s smallest kingfisher, to Africa’s 42-46 cm Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) and Australia’s 40-48 cm Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae).
In tropical and subtropical regions kingfishers are mainly resident, but those recorded in temperate regions tend to be migratory, e.g. Australia’s Sacred Kingfisher which is a widespread resident in northern Australia. However, it’s also part migratory as some migrate to southern Australia to breed in summer, then migrate north again for winter, either to northern Australia or to New Guinea, Indonesia and other Pacific islands.
During the breeding season, male kingfishers often noisily set up and advertise their territories and invite females to pair with them. After breeding, some species form groups.
Kingfishers’ superb colour-sensitive and binocular vision enables them to see small prey from surprisingly long distances, and in water, enabling them to judge water depth accurately. Typically, they perch immobile on a branch or rock (some hover), looking down to locate their prey. Once focused on the prey, they plunge head-first onto it, either in water or on ground, catching it with their bills (not their feet as do raptors), tenderising it against the perch and ‘juggling’ it into the right position to swallow it whole.
While perched, some bob their heads to judge aim, distance and water refraction, and wings to startle the fish into moving and becoming more visible. They sometimes use their wings to help them pursue the fish in the water and have nictitating membranes to protect their eyes.
Most wetland kingfishers feed in fresh water, some in salt water. Since they need clear water in which to see their prey, and a reasonable abundance of fish, the presence of kingfishers at a wetland is a general indication of good water quality. Siltation, which reduces visibility, and pollution, which kills fish, are detrimental to kingfishers and reduce their abundance.
Although kingfishers have adapted to wetlands, deserts, wet rainforests, dry woodlands, mangrove swamps, tropical islands, coastal lowlands and mountains; some occur in parks, gardens and farmland near human habitation. They’ve been recorded in such disparate places as the Amazon River, Alaskan lakes, and southern African dry thornbush!
These varied habitats and the birds’ feeding behavior are, of course, interconnected, thus the separation into the subfamilies: Alcedininae ‘wetland kingfishers’ and Halcyoninae ‘tree kingfishers’; plus Cerylinae (exclusively fish-eating kingfishers) that aren’t represented in Australia. These distinctions are not absolute, as some wetland kingfishers feed on land, while some tree kingfishers take aquatic prey - they haven’t ‘read the book’.
Being carnivorous/insectivorous, most kingfishers eat reptiles, such as lizards, snakes (some venomous) and spiders on the ground; frogs in tree canopies; and insects in flight. Small mammals are on the menu, and some take nestlings of other birds. The others take fish or aquatic animals such as crustaceans, or eat fish almost exclusively.
All kingfishers nest in cavities. Most wetland kingfishers make horizontal or slightly upward nesting burrows in vertical banks along watercourses, digging with their bills and scraping out the debris with their feet (their joined front toes form scoops, as discussed above).
Tree kingfishers mostly nest in tree holes. Some, however, e.g. Australia’s Forest Kingfisher, nest in arboreal termite nests (termitaria), or rotten trees. Australia’s Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher nests in ground termite nests.
Making a nest in a termite nest is quite an undertaking. For example, from several metres away, both members of a pair of Australia’s Forest Kingfishers repeatedly fly like little missiles straight at the termite nest, pointed bill forward, hitting the hard cement to chip it away. This raises the question: do kingfishers get bad headaches? Some have been killed by this strenuous, dangerous activity when the termite nest is particularly solid.
‘Housework’ is not in fish-eating wetland kingfishers’ vocabulary, and their burrows often become foul and littered with fish bones, scales and crustacean bits which raise the floor and therefore the chicks. However, Australia’s Forest Kingfisher’s short nest tunnel is easier to keep clean as the nestlings forcefully eject droppings accurately to the outside. The resulting white marks on a termite nest are a good indication of an active nest. Standing under such a nest is perhaps, wisely, a short-term activity.
In Australia, the only members of the Alcedininae subfamily are the Azure and Little Kingfishers. At 12 cm, Little Kingfisher (Ceyx pusillus) is Australia’s smallest kingfisher. Bright blue above and clean white below, it’s a striking bird that usually appears black in poor light. It’s so tiny that from a distance it is sometimes mistaken for an insect: the wingspan of some dragonflies is longer than the length of a Little Kingfisher. Typical of Alcedininae kingfishers, Little Kingfisher eats tiny fish and other aquatic animals. A mainly tropical bird, it occurs in lowland rainforest streams and tidal mangrove creeks and swamps, preferring dark, narrow waterways with lots of overhanging vegetation that provides hunting perches.
The Azure Kingfisher (Ceyx azureus) is an intensely-coloured, small fish and aquatic invertebrate feeder of slow-moving rivers and creeks; and lakes, swamps, billabongs, and well-vegetated dams. The rich blue upper-parts, very long black shiny bill, white mark on sides of neck, white throat, deep rufous underparts, short tail, and reddish feet are obvious in the photo, herein, taken in Kakadu National Park, NT.
When in sunlight, Azure Kingfisher’s beautiful blue upper-parts shimmer and contrast strikingly with the rich chestnut underparts. Females are slightly duller. These birds are easily overlooked if perched quietly in shade, and may first be noticed when calling during their arrow-like flight over water, or when splashing into water to catch prey.
The eight Australian ‘tree kingfishers’ are the two kookaburras; Red-backed, Forest, Torresian (formerly Collared), Sacred, and Yellow-billed Kingfishers; and the Buff-breasted Paradise-Kingfisher. They mostly take their food on the ground, and the Torresian Kingfisher often forages on intertidal mud near mangroves.
Australia’s Forest Kingfisher (Todiramphus macleayii) is primarily a tropical and subtropical resident in central and northern Qld. Upper-parts are a richer iridescent blue than those of the other Australian Todiramphus kingfishers: Sacred, Torresian and Red-backed. Male Forest Kingfishers have a broad, unbroken white collar around the nape: females’ collars are incomplete. Both sexes have large white loral (between base of bill and eye) spots (like headlights), and in flight, a white diagnostic wing patch on each wing.
They prefer hunting in fairly open country on ground or in shallow water, and their varied diet includes the usual suspects including fish. They’re also quite common in open sclerophyll forests and woodlands, rainforest edges, mangroves and parks, especially near wetlands. When not breeding they sometimes ‘hang out’ in farmland with isolated trees/powerlines on which to perch.
The iconic Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) is world famous for its wild laughing call, especially at dawn and dusk. This is so regular in the bush that it was, and may still be, known ‘out bush’ as the ‘bushman’s clock’. Laughing Kookaburra parents are often helped to rear their chicks by previous broods, and/or possibly by kidnapped young from other families. It’s understood the breeding capacity of these young birds is suppressed by their subordinate position in the family hierarchy.
Kookaburras grab snakes behind the head and kill them by dropping them from a height, or while holding them in their bills batter them senseless before swallowing them. They also take young of other birds and sometimes make themselves unpopular by raiding farms for ducklings and chicks. During breeding, the male Laughing’s rump changes to bright blue, whereas all Blue-winged Kookaburras have a blue rump.
Habitat requirements, diet, and behaviour in both species are similar. Both species are highly territorial, nest in tree holes, and live in strongly bonded family groups. Slightly smaller than the Laughing is the Blue-winged Kookaburra. These two species can be easily distinguished from each other and with close comparison of the photos herein you can see several differences between them.
Laughing Kookaburra is an eastern Australian species (introduced into southern WA in the 1890s); and Blue-winged Kookaburra is a more western and northern species (Pilbara and Kimberley in WA, and northern half of NT). The two species overlap in Queensland.
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