One might think that this question is a no-brainer. A kingfisher must surely be the best in the world at catching fish? I mean, they are the kingfishers. However, don’t be fooled by a name…

A woodland kingfisher throws a scorpion into the air to reposition it. Birds will reposition their prey by throwing and twisting it so that it can easily be swallowed head first. Image by David Dampier.

Although I am not an expert at identifying fish species, in the image above one can clearly see that the woodland kingfisher is eating what appears to be a scorpion, not a fish. Surprisingly, only four out of the ten kingfisher species found in South Africa eat fish as their main diet. Based on this statistic, one starts to question whether “kingfisher” is in fact an appropriate name after all!

 

A male giant kingfisher holds a Tilapia species of fish in its beak. Giant kingfishers are the largest kingfisher in the region and actively hunt for fish, but also feed on aquatic invertebrates such as crabs. Image by Mike Sutherland.

If one takes a closer look at the fish-eating versus insect-eating kingfishers, there is no really major difference physically. They all have similar body and bill designs. There is however, a difference in their behaviour: the insect-eating kingfishers are predominantly migratory. Have a look at the comparison of the seasonal movement and diet of the different kingfisher species in the table below.

Species of kingfisher

Migrant or ResidentMain prey speciesSeen on Londolozi?

African pygmy

Migrant

Mainly insectsYes

Brown-hooded

Resident

Insects, small reptiles

Yes

Giant

Resident

Mainly fish and aquatic invertebrates

Yes

Grey-headed

Migrant

Insects

Yes

Half-collared

Resident

Mainly fish

Yes (rare)

Malachite

Resident

Mainly fish

Yes

Mangrove

Local migrant

Mostly crabs and fish

No

Pied

Resident

Mainly fish

Yes

Striped

Resident

Mainly insects

Yes

WoodlandMigrantMainly insects

Yes

 

 

A pied kingfisher hovering directly above a waterbody against the backdrop of a setting sun. Pied kingfishers will hover several metres above water looking for fish to catch. Image by Kate Neill.

The bill shape of kingfishers is perfectly adapted for catching both insects or fish. Although all closely related to each other, in time, kingfishers have evolved to exploit different prey niches. What this means is that the birds have diverged away from each other in terms of what they eat so as not to be in direct competition with each other. This will have caused different species to form over many years. In the process, the kingfishers have developed slightly different body designs that best suit their habits and their diet. For example, if one looks at the largest kingfisher – the giant kingfisher – one sees that it has a large, heavyset bill. This is perfectly adapted for breaking through the shells of prey items such as crabs upon which its focuses its feeding. However, giant kingfishers will still fish, mainly by perching on the side of a water source and then bomb diving in at an angle to catch their prey.

A male giant kingfisher perches off to the side of a waterhole, looking for any potential prey items from small fish to crabs. Note the feeding method of perching and searching rather than hovering overhead, like other aquatic kingfishers. Image by Talley Smith.

 

A malachite kingfisher emerges from a pool of water. This would have been an unsuccessful fishing attempt as it has no fish in its bill. Image by James Tyrrell.

Some of the insect-eating species arrive back on Londolozi in the summer months, coinciding with the first rains, when the insect populations suddenly boom. This also coincides with some very high temperatures. Oftentimes one will see species such as the woodland kingfisher around the edge of waterholes, periodically diving in. If one was to watch for an extended period of time, one would notice that these dives never result in a fish being caught. This is because the birds are simply using the water as a bath and a means to cool down! A common mistake that people make is to assume that a kingfisher is fishing when it dives into a pool of water. Take note of the species before making this assumption.

 

A woodland kingfisher sits perched with a freshly caught solifuge in its mouth. These migratory kingfishers eat mostly small invertebrates and insects, but not fish. Image by Talley Smith.

Fish supplies are fairly constant throughout the year – wherever there is a constant supply of water, fish can be found. Thus, fish-eating kingfishers have little to no need to travel far to find food. On the contrary, insect populations spike in summer and drastically drop in number over the dry winter months. This is the reason that a lot of the insect-eating kingfishers are migratory, as they will follow the summer rains and warmer weather in order to capitalise on the abundance of insect prey over summer.

Hopefully now we will all take a closer look when viewing kingfishers around water sources and not jump to conclusions as to exactly why they are there!

About the Author

Pete Thorpe

Field Guide

Right from his very first bush trip at the age of four, Pete was always enthralled by this environment. Having grown up in the Middle East, Pete’s home-away-from-home has always been a bungalow in the Greater Kruger National Park, where his family had ...

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4 Comments

on Do All Kingfishers Eat Fish?

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Callum Evans

It makes sense that the migratory species are all insect-eaters (though the brown-hooded manages to get by). I have noticed, though I’ve not yet seen one, that mangrove kingfishers have very thick bills (like the giants) which I’m now led to presume is because they regularly feed on crabs in the mangroves?

Marinda Drake

Interesting facts about kingfishers Pete. We have the brown hooded in our garden most of the year. They help control the cricket population. We get the woodlands moving through in summer.

Joanne Wadsworth

I was aware of just several types of Kingfishers, but totally unaware of the variety of species, whether they migrated and their preferred food sources. I always thought they were magical birds! Now learning that they “toss” their food to better ingest isn’t necessarily the first moment they’ve captured it. I’d reposition a scorpion to go head first too, rather than stinger first myself! Actually … just give me a fish!

Mary Beth Wheeler

Really interesting information, Pete! Thanks!

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