A bird widely distributed across the world today, the kingfisher inhabits almost every continent (map below). This successful and thriving species has fossils that date back 30-40 million years.
Contrary to their name, not all kingfishers catch and eat fish; some species prefer frogs, snakes, worms, and more. Wikipedia overview.
Though sources differ, there are approximately 100 species of kingfishers. Largely tropical birds, the majority inhabit the Old World tropics and Australasia.
The species we see most in North America is the belted kingfisher,. In Europe, the kingfisher most commonly seen is appropriately called: common kingfisher. There are 10 species in Australia, 18 in Africa.
Whenever I am walking around a lake or river and hear the characteristic ratcheting of the belted kingfisher, whatever I am doing, I look up and search for this avian friend.
Kingfishers have a disproportionately large head and long, pointy bill; with short legs and stubby tails. They range in size from 3.9 inches long (10 cm) (African dwarf kingfisher) to 18 inches (45 cm) (giant kingfisher).
When you come across a kingfisher, they are often perched on a branch, scanning the ground or water below. One of the easier birds to spot, they have bright colors, a distinct shape, and a predictable behavior.
Kingfishers have excellent vision, including binocular and color; and are able to recognize water reflection and depth. Some species have eye membranes for water protection. The pied kingfisher, for example, has a bony plate that slides across the eye on water impact.
Once the kingfisher spots the prey, they swoop down and snatch it, return to the perch. Holding the prey in their strong bill, they beat it against the limb, breaking it down to a sizeable portion for consumption.
Sometimes kingfishers will hover above water and dive in for fish.
A kingfisher discussion would not be complete without mentioning the laughing kookaburra. Although this kingfisher lives primarily in Australia, many of us all over the world have heard of it, from the song. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree….”
You can hear the great old children’s song, written by an Australian music teacher in 1934, here: the song
The real-life sound of a laughing kookaburra is truly wonderful. When I first heard it in a park in Sydney, it startled me.
Loud and cackling, it sounds nothing like laughter. You might think it was a monkey (or a wild beast) if you didn’t know better. Kookaburra call.
With a variety of specialized hunting skills, successful worldly range, and striking colors, this bird is one that many of us have been celebrating our whole life.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander