Kingfishers are one of the most brilliantly coloured birds, and many have strident voices and dramatic courtship displays. Most species have some blue plumage, and many have red bills. Some have adapted well to man’s alteration of natural habitats, and can even be seen in suburban gardens.
Despite their name, not all kingfishers feed on fish – many are carnivorous (feeding on vertebrates such as reptiles, rodents and birds) or insectivorous (feeding on insects and other invertebrates), and some rarely come near water.
Kingfishers perch in an upright stance, are large-headed, short-necked and have long, stout bills. They belong to the order Coraciiformes and are related to bee-eaters and rollers. In flight, kingfishers are speedy and direct, rarely flying above tree level. When hunting for fish, the Kingfisher plunge head first towards the water and return to a perch to kill and eat their prey. Kingfishers normally sleep in some kind of tunnel or hole.
Where they are found
There are 86 kingfisher species throughout the world. Africa has 18 species, ten of which occur in Southern and East Africa.
The truly aquatic kingfishers are represented in Southern and East Africa by the tiny Malachite Kingfisher, the similar but larger Half-collared Kingfisher, the impressive Giant Kingfisher and the gregarious Pied Kingfisher. These four species feed exclusively on fish or other aquatic creatures (the Giant is particularly fond of river crabs, and the Malachite takes a high number of tadpoles and dragonfly larvae) and are never seen far from water.
All breed in a burrow excavated into the banks of a river, and the first three mentioned are strongly territorial. The Pied Kingfisher occurs in family groups, with the previous season’s offspring often helping to raise their parents’ next brood, and a dozen or more may gather to roost in papyrus beds at night. Accomplished at hovering, the Pied Kingfisher is able to hunt for fish far from the riverbank, even way out on an open lake or beyond the breakers along the coast. Reaching some 30cm in length, the Giant Kingfisher is the world’s largest member of the family, with only the Laughing Kookaburra (a non-aquatic kingfisher of Australia) coming close.
Six species of African kingfisher feed on insects, arachnids and small vertebrates which are mostly captured after a dive onto dry land. Several of these species are nevertheless often seen near water, as they also breed in sand banks. The tiny Pygmy Kingfisher is no taller than a cigarette, but its dazzling ochre and aquamarine plumage makes it a glorious sight. This little bird is a migrant to Southern Africa from the tropics, undertaking its long journeys after dark. Sadly, many of these gorgeous kingfishers are killed when flying into glass windows of buildings after dark.
Another intra-African migrant is the bold and vociferous Woodland Kingfisher which heralds the arrival of the summer rains south of the Zambezi, with its raucous and repetitive ‘ki. . . . . trrrrr’ call. Pairs of these turquoise and black birds secure a territory – with a suitable tree-hole in which to lay their eggs – and spend several months advertising their presence to competitors in noisy calling bouts and wing-fanning displays.
The very similar African Mangrove Kingfisher breeds in coastal forests (utilising a tree hole) but spends much of its time in mangrove swamps where it preys upon crabs and other crustaceans. The Brown-hooded Kingfisher is not a migrant, and although it is a bushveld bird, it is resident in leafy suburbs of South African towns such as Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Nelspruit and Durban. As with other kingfishers, pairs stick together and may hold the same territory for several years.
The similar Grey-hooded Kingfisher is resident in East Africa, with small numbers migrating south of the Zambezi each year between November and April. This insectivorous kingfisher excavates a tunnel nest chamber in a sand bank, and is often found near dry watercourses. Smallest and least colourful of the non-aquatic kingfishers is the Striped Kingfisher, a bird which ranges deep into the central Kalahari and other semi-arid habitats. It is a tree-hole nester and feeds primarily on dwarf geckos, other small reptiles and insects.