As their name suggests, kingfishers are one of nature’s most skilled waterside avian predators and have perfected the art of diving into still or slow-flowing water and emerging with a beakful of fish.
But do kingfishers only eat fish or is their diet more varied? Keep reading to find out more.
Kingfishers are well known for their precision dives into lakes, rivers, and streams from waterside perches, emerging with fish gripped tightly in their bills. Belted kingfishers may occasionally supplement their diet with insects, crustaceans, and sometimes amphibians, reptiles and mammals.
There are more than 90 species of kingfisher, but for this article we will be focusing on the Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon, North America’s most abundant member of the kingfisher family) and the iconic metallic blue Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis, widespread across Europe and Asia).
Highly skilled at catching small fish from just beneath the water’s surface, kingfishers can frequently be seen, patiently scanning a fishing spot for hours before making their move.
When feeding a burrow full of hungry nestlings, the intensity of their fishing activity escalates, with over 100 fish required on a daily basis to meet the needs of their young.
To learn more about the types of fish that belted kingfishers and common kingfishers target, how often they hunt, and whether they have a preferred time of day for their fishing missions, please read on.
Fish that are most commonly found in a belted kingfisher’s diet include sticklebacks, mummichogs, trout, and stonerollers. Fish that are between 90 and 140 mm (3.5-5.5 in) are generally preferred.
For common kingfishers, fish around 23 mm (0.9 in) are preferred, but anything up to 80-125 mm (3.1-4.7 in) in length will be targeted, including minnows, sticklebacks, roach, barbel, grayling and carp.
Belted Kingfisher with a recently caught fish
Kingfishers typically need to eat between 50 and 60 percent of their body mass on a daily basis, which is an estimated 13 to 21 fish.
When feeding young, around 100 fish need to be caught each day to meet the needs of the growing nestlings. No mean feat, but with the precision fish-catching techniques developed by these magnificent birds, it is achievable, day after day.
While freshwater fish form the largest element of a Belted kingfisher’s diet, other prey may be sought, including amphibians, crustaceans, insects, and small mammals and reptiles found on riverbanks.
On a slow-fishing day, Common kingfishers may resort to eating insects that it catches near the surface of a stream or lake from its waterside perch. Other fall-back diet options include tadpoles and freshwater shrimps, but these will only be taken as a last resort.
Some kingfisher species do not eat fish at all. In Asia, Africa and Australia, where there are around 90 species of kingfisher, smaller species survive on invertebrates, while larger kingfishers living in woodlands hunt for frogs, rodents, and reptiles.
Perched Common Kingfisher with a fish in its beak
Although not a common or core element of a belted kingfisher’s diet, nestlings may sometimes be preyed on, particularly those of quails and sparrows. There are no records of common kingfishers eating other birds.
Kingfishers patiently wait on a waterside perch watching for movement near the surface of a lake or river. Once a suitable fish has been spotted, they plunge into the water headfirst to catch their prey. These steep dives are usually less than a meter in depth, and they emerge from the water, grasping the fish in their sharp beak.
Having left the water, they fly to a nearby perch, where they continue to keep a firm grip on the fish with their beak, while pounding it against a branch or riverbank to stun it. This makes it easier to manoeuvre, turning it until it can be swallowed head first.
If a spot with abundant fish is identified, the same perch will be used regularly for daily feeding and hunting trips. Kingfishers may also wait near sites where other birds, such as egrets, are feeding and then take advantage of being signposted to a good fishing spot.
Insects, such as damselflies, butterflies and moths, and mayflies, are caught mid-flight with kingfishers swooping close to the water’s surface or hovering near branches to pick up beetles and caterpillars.
Kingfisher emerging from the water with a fish
Belted kingfishers are classed as carnivores, as their diet consists primarily of fish and crustaceans, as well as occasionally insects, small amphibians, and mammals. Common kingfishers follow a mainly piscivore diet, and are therefore also considered carnivores.
However, rare reports exist of Belted kingfishers eating berries in winter, and Common kingfishers eating the stems of waterside reeds.
Belted kingfishers can be spotted throughout the day, skimming the surface of lakes or flying up and down rivers, just above the water. Feeding activity is more concentrated in the early morning and early evenings.
Observations of common kingfishers also identify prime hunting and feeding times are late morning and early evening.
Belted Kingfisher coming in to land with a freshly caught minnow
Belted kingfisher young are fed initially on a diet of regurgitated, partially digested fish. The first whole fish are brought to the nestlings five days after hatching, with the male bird taking the lead share of feeding duties. Young are fed in the morning and early evening, and left largely unattended in between.
Baby Common kingfishers are brought fish to eat by both parents, which gradually increase in size as the chicks grow. In the first few days of life, fish 1–2 cm long will be brought every 45 to 50 minutes.
Chicks up to 10 days old are fed fish up to 3 cm long every 20-25 minutes, and by 18 days, feeding visits increase to every 15-20 minutes, with chicks being fed larger fish, around 5 to 8 cm in length.
Kingfisher feeding chick
Kingfishers thrive in watery environments with a suitable nearby spot in which they can build their tunnel-like nests in which they raise their young.
Any garden pond would need to be well stocked with fish, and a fairly decent size and depth, to enable their plunging hunting technique. Open clearings around the water feature would be a bonus, as well as a waterside tree or shrub that could be used as a perching spot.
Kingfishers are active hunters and will always source their own food, with their very specialized methods for tracking and catching fish from under the surface of a lake or stream.
Belted Kingfisher emerging out of the water with a fish
Belted and common kingfishers only drink water, and also gain a significant amount of their hydration needs from the fish they consume.
Although kingfishers will likely never visit a backyard bird feeder, do not give up hope entirely of seeing one in your garden. Garden ponds have on occasion been reported to have been raided by hungry kingfishers in search of an easy spot to feed a quick fish fix.
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