The dashing Kingfisher is arguably the UK’s most colourful bird species. Most often seen as a flash of blue streaking along the bankside vegetation, these birds are always a welcome sight.
Kingfisher after a successful hunt for fish
Kingfisher in flight
Kingfisher diving into the water to hunt fish
Common kingfisher, Eurasian kingfisher, River kingfisher
16cm to 18cm
24cm to 26cm
23g to 35g
Kingfishers are small, brightly coloured birds with outsized bills and barely a tail to speak of. Read on to learn more about Kingfisher size and appearance.
Adult Kingfishers are blue above and rusty orange below. Their plumage is electric blue from the top of their tails to the crown of their heads. Their wings are a similar but darker shade, and they have a broad blue moustache stripe from the base of their bill to their shoulder.
They have orange undersides and a small orange patch on either side of their face. These patches contrast with a white marking on either side of the nape and a white chin spot. Kingfishers have deep orange legs.
Female Kingfishers are almost identical to males, although the sexes can be distinguished by their bill colour. Males have all-black bills, while the lower half of the female’s bill (mandible) is red.
Juveniles are similar to adults but appear duller overall. They have shorter, black bills, dark feet, and greener upper parts.
A breeding pair of Kingfishers - male right, female on the left
Kingfishers are small birds with a compact appearance. However, their dagger-like bills are conspicuous at up to four centimetres long.
Kingfishers measure 16 to 18 centimetres in length.
They are stocky little birds that weigh 25 to 35 grams. Males are usually heavier than females.
These fast-flying birds have a wingspan of 24 to 26 centimetres.
Kingfisher perched on a stump
Kingfishers are not exactly known for their song, although these birds are often heard before they are seen.
The Kingfisher’s song consists of high-pitched whistles. You may also hear their sharp ‘chee chee’ call as they take flight.
Common Kingfisher Call
Dawid Jablonski, XC185754. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/185754.
Kingfishers have toes that are joined together along part of their length, making a useful shovel with which to excavate nesting tunnels.
As their name suggests, Kingfishers usually hunt prey that swims below the water. Read on to learn more about their diet.
Unsurprisingly, fish are the favourite food source for Kingfishers. They also eat invertebrates like insects and crustaceans and small vertebrates like frogs and tadpoles.
These birds hunt many fish species, from Sticklebacks to Pike, and their maximum prey size is about 12 centimetres. Such large prey is impressive, considering that Kingfishers measure just 16 centimetres themselves!
Kingfishers may eat more than twenty fish in a single day, although the total number depends on the size of the prey. These birds typically eat half (or more) of their own body weight in fish each day.
They hunt by diving into the water up to about a meter deep. They use their impressive beak to catch the hapless fish and then flap their wings to rise to the surface and fly up to their perch to feed. Prey is stunned by dashing it against a hard surface and then swallowed whole.
Kingfisher chicks eat whole small fish delivered by both parents. Their first meals are tiny, although the adults provide progressively larger meals as their young grow.
Close up of a Kingfisher catching fish in the water
Kingfishers are closely associated with freshwater ecosystems across their extensive Northern Hemisphere range. Read on to learn where you might spot these dazzling little birds.
Kingfishers hunt along the margins of rivers, lakes, ponds, canals, and gravel pits. They prefer still or gently flowing water, and require bankside vegetation for hunting perches. Coastal habitats are important in cold winters.
In the United Kingdom, Kingfishers are most widespread in England and Wales, although they also occur in low-lying areas of Scotland. They are fairly widespread in the Republic of Ireland.
The Kingfisher’s range extends through much of Central and Southern Europe and across Asia to Japan in the East. They also occur in North Africa, throughout the Indian Subcontinent and much of Southeast Asia
Kingfishers spend almost all their time perched vegetation along the margins of freshwater bodies. They usually perch just a meter or two above the water’s surface.
Kingfisher diving down into the water, with spread wings
Kingfishers are not rare, although you are not likely to spot these colourful birds unless you know where to look. They can be quite common wherever they can find small fish and vegetated margins, sometimes occurring at densities of over six individuals per kilometre in ideal habitats.
Birdwatchers in the UK can spot Kingfishers at most still or slow-flowing water bodies in the countryside and sometimes even in well-managed urban areas. These birds are rare in gardens, although they may visit larger ponds.
Strolling along the banks of canals, lakes, and rivers may produce fleeting sightings of these fast-flying birds as they flush from reeds and other bankside vegetation.
However, sitting quietly in such areas might reward the patient birdwatcher with a view of their exciting fishing technique.
Kingfisher diving into the water hunting for fish
Kingfishers are pretty secretive, wary birds, and can be difficult to spot despite their bright plumage. They will usually be perched motionless on a branch on the lookout for prey.
If there is no suitable perch, the kingfisher will hover for several seconds before plunging into the water. The kingfisher’s back and tail are the palest parts during flight, which straight and fast, and usually seen low over the surface of the water.
Kingfisher preening its feathers
When it dives into the water, the kingfisher’s eyes are protected by a translucent third eyelid.
Kingfishers are relatively short-lived birds. Despite being vulnerable to many predators, pollution and cold winters remain their greatest threats.
Kingfishers have a short lifespan, surviving just two years on average. The oldest known specimen lived to just seven and a half years.
Stoats, weasels, rats, and mink are all potential Kingfisher predators. Birds of prey like Sparrowhawks also pose a risk.
Kingfishers are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. They are also a Schedule 1 species in the UK, which makes it illegal to disturb them when nesting.
Kingfishers are not endangered. Their populations have largely recovered, and they are back on the green list, although they remain vulnerable to harsh weather, flooding, pollution and the degradation of their natural habitat.
Male and Female Kingfisher passing fish
Kingfishers are breeding residents in the UK, producing one or two broods in the spring and summer. Read on to learn more about their nesting habits.
Kingfishers build their nests in vertical banks near their hunting grounds. Both sexes work together to excavate a tunnel that can be over a meter deep. The nesting tunnel ends in a larger unlined chamber where the female lays her eggs.
Kingfishers lay six or seven (up to ten) small white eggs. They are almost spherical in shape, each measuring approximately 2.2 centimetres long and 1.9 centimetres wide.
Few adult Kingfishers survive to breed more than once in their lifetime. Those that do will usually mate with a different partner each year, although pairs may reunite from one year to the next.
Common Kingfisher with young chicks
Kingfishers are generally solitary creatures, although pairs come together during the breeding season to build a nest and raise their young.
Kingfishers are aggressive towards neighbours that enter their territory since nesting space, and foraging opportunities are limited. They will use calls and displays to deter intruders and chase unwanted visitors from their patch when necessary.
Kingfishers are shy and flighty birds. They could not be described as friendly towards humans, although they are capable of tender moments, like when males present their partners with food.
Kingfishers sleep alone in vegetation along the margins of watercourses. They spend the night perched on a small branch with their bill tucked behind their back.
Kingfisher in defence mode, defending territory from unwanted visitors
Birdwatchers can usually enjoy Kingfisher sightings throughout the year in the right habitats. However, harsh winters may necessitate local movements.
Kingfishers do not usually migrate in the United Kingdom, although they will undergo short movements to the coast in cold winters. They do this to find fish when freshwater hunting grounds freeze over.
Elsewhere in the world, Kingfishers undertake short, medium, and long-distance annual migrations.
Close up of a perched Kingfisher, with fish in its beak
Kingfishers rarely visit gardens. However, they may turn up at larger garden ponds where they can be unwelcome visitors for fish keepers.
There are an estimated 3,800 to 6,400 pairs of Kingfishers in the United Kingdom.
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