The Kingfisher: quite possibly the most appropriately named bird in the animal kingdom. Kingfishers are a family of diverse birds found in every continent except Antarctica, and they’ve evolved to conquer an array of ecosystems. There are over a hundred described species of kingfishers and for the most part, they all share a similar set of characteristics: vivid plumages, sharp beaks, and remarkable hunting skills. In this blog, we’ll explore the fascinating world of kingfishers, discovering their diverse species, unique behaviours, and the vital roles they play in our natural world.
The Diverse Kingfisher Species
There are three subfamilies of Kingfishers;
1. Tree kingfishers make up the largest subfamily and there are over 70 species. They are most common in Asia and Australasia and are often found in tropical rainforests and open woodlands. These kingfishers don’t specialise in fish and instead, their diet is made up of small vertebrates and invertebrates. Many species of tree kingfishers and other kingfishers that eat primarily insects are brightly coloured, short-tailed, compact birds with long, pointed bills.
2. River Kingfishers are mostly found in Africa, Asia and Australia. They mostly eat fish, but insects also fall into their diets and these birds are pros at catching flying insects in mid-air.
3. Water kingfishers are the smallest subfamily of kingfishers with only nine species, six of which are found in the Americas. These are all specialist fish-eating species, unlike many representatives of the other two subfamilies.
Kingfishers exhibit remarkable and unique behaviours that set them apart from other bird species. Their striking behaviours are often shaped by their specialised hunting techniques and the environments they inhabit.
One of the most distinctive behaviours of kingfishers is their incredible fishing prowess. These birds are skilled hunters, and while there are many species of Kingfishers that don’t eat fish, those that do capture them with great precision. Kingfishers hover over water bodies, eyeing their prey, and then plunge headfirst into the water, often submerging completely to grasp their catch. Some species of kingfishers take this to the next level, like the Pied Kingfisher. This is the largest bird in the world that can hover in place. They beat their wings eight times a second and some species hover up to 10m above the water, high enough to be sure that they won’t be spotted by any would-be prey.
Kingfishers have very strong and adept muscles in their neck which they use to keep their head stabilized while searching for fish. Like many other predatory birds, they have very large eyes with a limited range of movements that give them an increased ability to pick out prey at a distance.
Their beaks are shaped like needles and slide into the water with ease. When they hit the water their prey has less than a second to react. In order to keep track of where their prey is, their eyes have a third translucent eyelid called a nictitating membrane that protects their eyes from the water. This allows them to keep their eyes open while diving.
Vital Roles of Kingfishers in the Ecosystem
Kingfishers play a vital role in their ecosystems as apex predators and ecosystem engineers. Their remarkable hunting skills help regulate populations of small fish and aquatic invertebrates, preventing overpopulation that could disrupt the aquatic food web. Additionally, when kingfishers create burrows for nesting, they often dig tunnels that serve as shelters for other species, such as small mammals and amphibians, providing valuable habitat. These burrows can also influence soil composition and water filtration, impacting the overall health of their environments.
In the unique world of Kingfishers, they contribute not only to the balance of aquatic and woodland habitats but also to the broader health and stability of the ecosystems they live in.