Alcedinidae – Kingfishers

American Pygmy Kingfisher Chloroceryle aenea ©Craig Brelsford Website

Alcedinidae are a group of small to medium-sized, brightly colored birds in the order Coraciiformes. They have a cosmopolitan distribution, with most species found outside of the Americas. The group is treated either as a single family, or as a suborder Alcedines containing three families, Alcedinidae (river kingfishers), Halcyonidae (tree kingfishers), and Cerylidae (water kingfishers).

114 species of kingfishers are described. All have large heads, long, sharp, pointed bills, short legs, and stubby tails. Most species have bright plumage with few differences between the sexes. Most species are tropical in distribution, and a slight majority are found only in forests. They consume a wide range of prey, as well as fish, usually caught by swooping down from a perch. While kingfishers are usually thought to live near rivers and eat fish, most species live away from water and eat small invertebrates. Like other members of their order, they nest in cavities, usually tunnels dug into the natural or artificial banks in the ground. A quarter of all kingfishers nest in abandoned termite nests. A few species, principally insular forms, are threatened with extinction. In Britain, the word ‘kingfisher’ normally refers to the common kingfisher.

The smallest species of kingfisher is the African Dwarf Kingfisher Ispidina lecontei, which averages 10.4g and 10 cm. The largest overall is the Giant KingfisherMegaceryle maxima, at an average of 355g and 45 cm. However, the familiar Australian kingfisher known as the Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae may be the heaviest species, since individuals exceeding 450g are not rare.

The plumage of most kingfishers is bright, with green and blue being the most common colours. The brightness of the colours is neither the product of iridescence (except in the American kingfishers) or pigments, but is instead caused by the structure of the feathers, which causes scattering of blue light (the Tyndall effect). In most species, no overt differences between the sexes exist; when differences occur, they are quite small (less than 10%).

The kingfishers have long, dagger-like bills. The bill is usually longer and more compressed in species that hunt fish, and shorter and more broad in species that hunt prey off the ground. The largest and most atypical bill is that of the Shovel-billed Kookaburra, which is used to dig through the forest floor in search of prey. Species generally have short legs, although species that feed on the ground have longer tarsi. Most species have four toes, three of which are forward-pointing.

The irises of most species are dark brown. The kingfishers have excellent vision; they are capable of binocular vision and are thought in particular to have good colour vision. They have restricted movement of their eyes within the eye sockets, instead using head movements to track prey. In addition, they are capable of compensating for the refraction of water and reflection when hunting prey underwater, and are able to judge depth under water accurately. They also have nictitating membranes that cover the eyes to protect them when they hit the water; the pied kingfisher has a bony plate which slides across the eye when it hits the water.

The kingfishers have a cosmopolitan distribution, occurring throughout the world’s tropical and temperate regions. They are absent from the polar regions and some of the world’s driest deserts. A number of species have reached islands groups, particularly those in the south and east Pacific Ocean. The Old World tropics and Australasia are the core areas for this group. Europe and North America north of Mexico are very poorly represented, with only one common kingfisher species (Common Kingfisher and Belted Kingfisher respectively), and a couple of uncommon or very local species each: (Ringed Kingfisher and Green Kingfisher in the southwestern United States, Pied Kingfisher and White-throated Kingfisher in southeastern Europe). The six species occurring in the Americas are four closely related green kingfishers in the genus Chloroceryle and two large crested kingfishers in the genus Megaceryle. Even tropical South America has only five species plus the wintering Belted Kingfisher. In comparison, the African country of the Gambia has eight resident species in its 193 by 32 km area.

Individual species may have massive ranges, like the Common Kingfisher, which ranges from Ireland across Europe, North Africa, and Asia as far as the Solomon Islands in Australasia, or the Pied Kingfisher, which has a widespread distribution across Africa and Asia. Other species have much smaller ranges, particularly insular species which are endemic to single small islands. The Kofiau Paradise Kingfisher is restricted to the island of Kofiau off New Guinea.

Kingfishers occupy a wide range of habitats. While they are often associated with rivers and lakes, over half the world’s species are found in forests and forested streams. They also occupy a wide range of other habitats. The Red-backed Kingfisher of Australia lives in the driest deserts, although kingfishers are absent from other dry deserts like the Sahara. Other species live high in mountains, or in open woodland, and a number of species live on tropical coral atolls. Numerous species have adapted to human-modified habitats, particularly those adapted to woodlands, and may be found in cultivated and agricultural areas, as well as parks and gardens in towns and cities.

Kingfishers feed on a wide variety of prey. They are most famous for hunting and eating fish, and some species do specialise in catching fish, but other species take crustaceans, frogs and other amphibians, annelid worms, molluscs, insects, spiders, centipedes, reptiles (including snakes), and even birds and mammals. Individual species may specialise in a few items or take a wide variety of prey, and for species with large global distributions, different populations may have different diets. Woodland and forest kingfishers take mainly insects, particularly grasshoppers, whereas the water kingfishers are more specialised in taking fish. The Red-backed Kingfisher has been observed hammering into the mud nests of Fairy Martins to feed on their nestlings.

Kingfishers usually hunt from an exposed perch; when a prey item is observed, the kingfisher swoops down to snatch it, then returns to the perch. Kingfishers of all three sub-families beat larger prey on a perch to kill the prey and to dislodge or break protective spines and bones. Having beaten the prey, it is manipulated and then swallowed. The Shovel-billed Kookaburra uses its massive, wide bill as a shovel to dig for worms in soft mud.

Kingfishers are territorial, some species defending their territories vigorously. They are generally monogamous, although cooperative breeding has been observed in some species and is quite common in others, for example the Laughing Kookaburra, where helpers aid the dominant breeding pair in raising the young.

Like all Coraciiformes, the kingfishers are cavity nesters, with most species nesting in holes dug in the ground. These holes are usually in earth banks on the sides of rivers, lakes or man-made ditches. Some species may nest in holes in trees, the earth clinging to the roots of an uprooted tree, or arboreal nests of termites (termitarium). These termite nests are common in forest species. The nests take the form of a small chamber at the end of a tunnel. Nest-digging duties are shared between the sexes. During the initial excavations, the bird may fly at the chosen site with considerable force, and birds have injured themselves fatally while doing this. The length of the tunnels varies by species and location; nests in termitariums are necessarily much shorter than those dug into the earth, and nests in harder substrates are shorter than those in soft soil or sand. The longest tunnels recorded are those of the giant kingfisher, which have been found to be 8.5 m long.

The eggs of kingfishers are invariably white and glossy. The typical clutch size varies by species; some of the very large and very small species lay as few as two eggs per clutch, whereas others may lay 10 eggs, the typical is around three to six eggs. Both sexes incubate the eggs. The offspring of the kingfisher usually stay with the parents for 3–4 months.

There are, according to the IOC 114 species of Kingfishers in the family Alcedinidae; they are:

Green-backed Kingfisher Actenoides monachus
Scaly-breasted Kingfisher Actenoides princeps
Moustached Kingfisher Actenoides bougainvillei
Spotted Wood Kingfisher Actenoides lindsayi
Hombron’s Kingfisher Actenoides hombroni
Rufous-collared Kingfisher Actenoides concretus

Hook-billed Kingfisher Melidora macrorrhina

Banded Kingfisher Lacedo pulchella

Common Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera galatea
Kofiau Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera ellioti
Biak Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera riedelii
Numfor Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera carolinae
Little Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera hydrocharis
Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera sylvia
Black-capped Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera nigriceps
Red-breasted Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera nympha
Brown-headed Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera danae

Lilac Kingfisher Cittura cyanotis

Shovel-billed Kookaburra Clytoceyx rex

Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae
Blue-winged Kookaburra Dacelo leachii
Spangled Kookaburra Dacelo tyro
Rufous-bellied Kookaburra Dacelo gaudichaud

Glittering Kingfisher Caridonax fulgidus

Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis
Great-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis melanorhyncha
Brown-winged Kingfisher Pelargopsis amauroptera

Ruddy Kingfisher Halcyon coromanda
White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis
Javan Kingfisher Halcyon cyanoventris
Chocolate-backed Kingfisher Halcyon badia
Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon pileata
Grey-headed Kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala
Brown-hooded Kingfisher Halcyon albiventris
Striped Kingfisher Halcyon chelicuti
Blue-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon malimbica
Woodland Kingfisher Halcyon senegalensis
Mangrove Kingfisher Halcyon senegaloides

Blue-black Kingfisher Todiramphus nigrocyaneus
Winchell’s Kingfisher Todiramphus winchelli
Blue-and-white Kingfisher Todiramphus diops
Lazuli Kingfisher Todiramphus lazuli
Forest Kingfisher Todiramphus macleayii
White-mantled Kingfisher Todiramphus albonotatus
Ultramarine Kingfisher Todiramphus leucopygius
Vanuatu Kingfisher Todiramphus farquhari
Sombre Kingfisher Todiramphus funebris
Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris
Torresian Kingfisher Todiramphus sordidus
Islet Kingfisher Todiramphus colonus
Mariana Kingfisher Todiramphus albicilla
Melanesian Kingfisher Todiramphus tristrami
Pacific Kingfisher Todiramphus sacer
Talaud Kingfisher Todiramphus enigma
Guam Kingfisher Todiramphus cinnamominus
Rusty-capped Kingfisher Todiramphus pelewensis
Pohnpei Kingfisher Todiramphus reichenbachii
Beach Kingfisher Todiramphus saurophagus
Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus
Flat-billed Kingfisher Todiramphus recurvirostris
Cinnamon-banded Kingfisher Todiramphus australasia
Chattering Kingfisher Todiramphus tutus
Mewing Kingfisher Todiramphus ruficollaris
Society Kingfisher Todiramphus veneratus
Mangareva Kingfisher Todiramphus gambieri
Niau Kingfisher Todiramphus gertrudae
Marquesan Kingfisher Todiramphus godeffroyi
Red-backed Kingfisher Todiramphus pyrrhopygius

Yellow-billed Kingfisher Syma torotoro
Mountain Kingfisher Syma megarhyncha

African Dwarf Kingfisher Ispidina lecontei
African Pygmy Kingfisher Ispidina picta

Madagascan Pygmy Kingfisher Corythornis madagascariensis
White-bellied Kingfisher Corythornis leucogaster
Malachite Kingfisher Corythornis cristatus
Malagasy Kingfisher Corythornis vintsioides

Cerulean Kingfisher Alcedo coerulescens
Blue-banded Kingfisher Alcedo euryzona
Shining-blue Kingfisher Alcedo quadribrachys
Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis
Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata
Blyth’s Kingfisher Alcedo hercules

Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx erithaca
Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx melanurus
Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx fallax
Moluccan Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx lepidus
Dimorphic Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx margarethae
Sula Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx wallacii
Buru Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx cajeli
Papuan Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx solitarius
Manus Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx dispar
New Ireland Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx mulcatus
New Britain Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx sacerdotis
North Solomons Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx meeki
New Georgia Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx collectoris
Malaita Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx malaitae
Guadalcanal Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx nigromaxilla
Makira Dwarf Kingfisher Ceyx gentianus
Indigo-banded Kingfisher Ceyx cyanopectus
Southern Silvery Kingfisher Ceyx argentatus
Northern Silvery Kingfisher Ceyx flumenicola
Azure Kingfisher Ceyx azureus
Bismarck Kingfisher Ceyx websteri
Little Kingfisher Ceyx pusillus

American Pygmy Kingfisher Chloroceryle aenea
Green-and-rufous Kingfisher Chloroceryle inda
Green Kingfisher Chloroceryle americana
Amazon Kingfisher Chloroceryle amazona

Crested Kingfisher Megaceryle lugubris
Giant Kingfisher Megaceryle maxima
Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata
Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon

Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 114

Useful Reading
Other Links
  • Kingfishers

    Website
    Images of a number of species
  • Kingfishers and their related birds

    Website
    Some images…
  • Kingfishers: Common, Pied, Kookaburra

    Website
    Images
  • Micronesian Kingfisher Todirhamphus cinnamominus Study

    Website
    Behavioral Ecology of the Micronesian Kingfisher in Pohnpei: Use of a Surrogate Subspecies in the Recovery of Kingfishers from Guam…
Photographers & Artists
  • Amazon Kingfisher Chloroceryle amazona

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Amazon Kingfisher Chloroceryle amazona

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • American Pygmy Kingfisher Chloroceryle aenea

    Gallery
    Good image
  • Azure Kingfisher Alcedo azurea

    Gallery
    Excellent images
  • Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon

    Gallery
    [Painted] Image
  • Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon

    Gallery
    Lots of [digiscoped] images
  • Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon pileata

    Gallery
    [in-hand] image
  • Blue-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon malimbica

    Gallery
    Image
  • Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Blue-winged Kookaburra Dacelo leachii

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis

    Gallery
    Image
  • Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis

    Gallery
    Excellent images
  • Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis

    Gallery
    Image
  • Green Kingfisher Chloroceryle americana

    Gallery
    Image
  • Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae

    Gallery
    excellent image of pair
  • Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata

    Wiki
    The malachite kingfisher (Alcedo cristata) is a river kingfisher which is widely distributed in Africa south of the Sahara. It is largely resident except for seasonal climate related movements...
  • Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis

    Wiki
    The pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) is a water kingfisher and is found widely distributed across Africa and Asia. Its black and white plumage, crest and the habit of hovering over clear lakes and rivers before diving for fish makes it distinctive. Males have a double band across the breast while females have a single gorget that is often broken in the middle. They are usually found in pairs or small family parties. When perched, they often bob their head and flick up their tail....
  • Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis

    Gallery
    Image
  • Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis

    Gallery
    Image
  • Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis

    Gallery
    Images
  • Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata

    Gallery
    Fine image
  • Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata

    Gallery
    Image
  • Sacred Kingfisher Todirhamphus sanctus

    Gallery
    Excellent images
  • Shining Blue Kingfisher Alcedo quadribrachys

    Gallery
    Species account with image…
  • Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis

    Gallery
    Totally stunning image!
  • Striped Kingfisher Halcyon chelicuti

    HBW
    Previously placed in monospecific genus Chelicutia. Races intergrade; a certain amount of geographical variation in dorsal coloration does not seem sufficient to warrant recognition of proposed races hylobia (W Zaire, NW Angola) and damarensis (S Angola E to Mozambique and Transvaal). Two subspecies currently recognised…
  • White-bellied Kingfisher Alcedo leucogaster

    Gallery
    Species accounts…
  • White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Woodland Kingfisher Halcyon senegalensis

    Gallery
    Excellent image
  • Woodland Kingfisher Halcyon senegalensis

    Gallery
    Excellent [in-hand] image

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