I like to group birds according to the habitats and niches in which they are found. It enables me to form a “mind’s eye” picture of the birds of the world which I don’t get from the conventional classification systems.
When we think about Kingfishers I’m sure most of us visualise a small, bright blue bird with a dagger beak, plunging from a perch above a river to take a fish from the water below. In fact what you see depends on where you are.
The 95 species of Kingfisher, listed in family Alcedinidae, are found in all main regions of the world. Following my habitat and niche approach, I would look for Kingfishers along wooded streams and rivers and in the UK that is just where I would find the Common Kingfisher (right).
Elsewhere in the world it can be a very different story. Some Kingfishers are found in forests and woodland, not necessarily close to water, and they do not eat fish.
They drop down from a perch to take lizards, snakes, small animals, and even small birds from the ground.
The first time I realised that some Kingfishers can be found in a wooded habitat away from water was during a trip to South Africa. I was surprised to see a Brown-hooded Kingfisher (left) and learned that it likes thickets in woodland and forest edges where it feeds on lizards, crabs, small rodents and snakes.
In The Gambia the Blue-breasted Kingfisher (right) seems to have a larger, flattened beak rather than a dagger beak. This one was on a perch close to a pond. An unusually open perch for a Kingfisher but this one seemed quite happy.
In Australia Kingfishers are found in riverine as well as woodland habitats and one of the field guides splits them into "River Kingfishers" in family Alcedinidae and "Tree Kingfishers" in family Halcyonidae.
The former are small birds with sharp dagger beaks which only feed on live food taken by plunge diving into rivers or streams.
The latter are larger birds with heavy beaks which drop down to take prey from the ground. Kookaburras are included in this group.
The Laughing Kookaburra (left) does not have the typical dagger beak of the Kingfisher.
Its beak is heavy and blunt; more suited to taking prey from the ground.
In fact the beak is rather reminiscent of the Blue-breasted Kingfisher above.
The Sacred Kingfisher (right) looks like a “conventional” Kingfisher but is found in Eucalyptus forest and woodland.
These two images (left and right)serve to illustrate the difference in size and beak type between the two sub-groups of birds which are listed in the same family.
In the New World Region all the Kingfishers in Costa Rica live up to their name and dive for fish. The Green Kingfisher (right) typically hunts from low perches, sometimes even rocks in rivers and streams.
Some Kingfishers don't even dive from a perch.
Some hover over water like the Tern before plunge diving for their prey.
The Ringed Kingfisher (left) will either plunge dive or take its prey from hovering flight. Tom photographed this one on the La Suerte River when we were birding in Costa Rica.
My friend Nelson took the photograph of the Belted Kingfisher (below, left) at Stone Harbor, New Jersey, USA. I have watched this species on many occasions and it always hovers before diving for prey.
Opinions suggest that birds in family Alcedinidae were initially terrestrial and probably arose in the tropical forests with the Kookaburras evolving first. The Shovel-billed Kookaburra eats mainly worms. The African Pygmy Kingfisher lives in the forest and eats insects.
Somewhere in the evolutionary process a bird with a more pointed beak, living near rivers where it could perch and dive succeeded in catching fish and this eventually led to the dagger beaked Kingfisher.
I have not made a detailed study but it appears that Kingfishers found in the western hemisphere are “conventional” Kingfishers found in association with water. A review of the genera suggests that Kingfishers can be split into two sub-groups as follows:-
- River Kingfishers – Ceyx 4, Ceryl 1, Chloroceryl 4, Megaceryl 4, Alcedo 17. Total 30.
- Tree Kingfishers – Actenoides 6, Tanysiptera 9, Clytoceyx 1, Dacelo 4, Pelargopsis 3, Halcyon 11, Todiramphus 22, Syma 2, Ispidina 3. Total 61.
NAMES CAN BE MISLEADING - Only one third of the species listed as Kingfishers actually eat fish.