There are 87 species of kingfishers (family Alcedinidae) which are brightly-colored birds ranging in size from the 4 in (11 cm) long malachite-crested kingfisher, to the laughing kookaburra of Australia, which is 18 in (46 cm) long, weighing 2 lb (0.5 kg).
Kingfishers have a stocky body, with a large head equipped with a large, stout, dagger-like bill for grasping their food of fish or other small animals. The three front toes of kingfishers are fused for at least half of their length, but the adaptive significance of this trait is not known.
All kingfishers nest in cavities, usually digging these in earthen banks, or in rotten trees. Kingfishers are monogamous and pair for life. Kingfishers generally hunt from perches, although many species will also hover briefly to find their prey. The aquatic kingfishers plunge head-first into the water in pursuit of their prey.
Most kingfishers occur in the vicinity of a wide range of aquatic habitats, both fresh and estuarine, where they typically feed on fish and amphibians. Other species live in essentially terrestrial habitats, including mangrove forests, upland tropical forests, and savanna. The relatively terrestrial species of kingfishers eat a wide variety of foods, ranging from arthropods, to amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. The prey is usually killed by repeatedly battering it against a branch or other hard substrate, and it is then eaten whole. One species, the shoe-billed kingfisher (Clytoceyx rex) of tropical forests of New Guinea, is a terrestrial bird that is specialized for digging earthworms, and has evolved a flat, stout, shovel-like bill.
Kingfishers typically occur in tropical and sub-tropical habitats, with only a few species nesting in the temperate zone. The greatest richness of species of kingfishers occurs in southeast Asia.
The most widespread species in North America is the belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), occurring over the entire continent south of the boreal forest. The belted kingfisher utilizes a wide range of aquatic habitats, ranging from estuaries to freshwater lakes, wetlands, and even large ditches. This species has a crest, a blue back, and a white breast with a blue horizontal stripe, and a familiar, rattling call that is often heard before the bird is seen. The female of this species is more brightly colored than the male, having a cinnamon stripe across her breast, a coloration that the male lacks. The belted kingfisher nests in chambers at the end of a 3-6.5 ft (1-2 m) long tunnel dug into an exposed, earthen bank, usually beside water. This species is frequently seen perching on overhead wires, posts, and tree branches in the vicinity of aquatic habitats. The belted kingfisher is a migratory species, wintering in the southern parts of its breeding range, or in Central America and the Caribbean. The green kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana) occurs only in south Texas and Arizona, and more widely in Mexico.
Most of the 10 Australian species of kingfishers are terrestrial, the laughing kookaburra (Dacelo gigas) being the best known species to most people. This is a large bird that makes its presence noisily known, and has garnered at least 25 common names in various parts of that country, most of which describe its raucous cries. The laughing kookaburra feeds largely on snakes and lizards, and some people feel that the species is beneficial for this reason. However, the kookaburra sometimes raids farmyards for young chickens and ducklings, and is then regarded as a minor pest.
Sometimes, particular kingfishers learn to feed at commercial trout farms or other sorts of aquaculture facilities, where these birds can become significant pests. However, the damage caused by kingfishers and other fish-eating birds can be easily dealt with by suspending netting over the aquaculture ponds.
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology. M. Brooke and T. Birkhead, eds. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Forshaw, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Academic Press, 1998.
Fry, C.H., K. Fry, and A. Harris. Kingfishers, Bee-eaters, and Rollers: A Handbook. London: Helm, 1992.