Kingfishers are small to medium-sized colourful birds belonging to the order Coraciiformes, with large heads, long pointed bills, short legs and stubby tails. They have a very wide distribution, and the group contains three families, Alcedinidae (river kingfishers), Halcyonidae (tree kingfishers), and Cerylidae (water kingfishers). There are roughly 90 species of kingfishers, out of which 12 are found in India and 8 are found in South India and in Karnataka:
- Common Kingfisher, Alcedo atthis
- Blue-eared Kingfisher, Alcedo meninting
- Black-capped Kingfisher, Halcyon pileata
- White-throated Kingfisher, Halcyon smyrnensis
- Collared Kingfisher, Todiramphus chloris
- Stork-billed Kingfisher, Pelargopsis capensis
- Pied Kingfisher, Ceryle rudis
- Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Ceyx erithaca
Most Kingfisher species have bright plumage with very little differences between the sexes. Most species are tropical in distribution, and a small majority is found only in forests. Kingfishers are my favourite birds; it is pure joy seeing and photographing the smallest kingfishers and I will never get tired of making pictures of them.
Common Kingfishers are found near lakes, ponds, canals, streams and slow-moving rivers; they feed on fish, aquatic invertebrates and amphibians. They have a large distribution across Karnataka and are easy to photograph from a hide or a boat.
They have a regular perch from where they fish, which may be just a few inches above the water. When they spot potential prey, they dive into the water and seize it then return to their perch where they swallow it head-first.
Common Kingfishers are solitary and highly territorial because they have to eat about 60% of their body weight a day. They fiercely defend their feeding grounds even from their mates and offspring. When contesting territory, they perform a ritual display perched some distance from each other. This involves displaying feathers and beaks, accompanied by whistling. Usually, the dispute is resolved without actual combat.
The Blue-eared Kingfisher is a forest dweller, found near pools and streams in dense evergreen forests situated under 1000m altitude. The Blue-eared Kingfisher is distinguished from the Common Kingfisher by indigo-blue ear coverts (feathers covering the ears), darker and more intense cobalt-blue upper-parts with richer rufous under-parts.
It is a very beautiful species of kingfisher, but not easy to find and photograph as they perch near streams in dense forests. The best way is to locate the bird’s favourite perch [near its nest], where it usually spends a lot of time. They usually nest on mud walls near streams, and their true colours are accentuated if you are lucky to photograph them against a mud wall.
Black-capped Kingfishers are common winter visitors that resemble the resident White-throated Kingfishers in call. Black-capped Kingfishers, however, are quieter than their smaller resident cousins and more wary and hard to approach closely.
Black-capped Kingfishers have a broad diet. Those near the coast eat mainly crabs and fish. Those elsewhere eat mainly insects, particularly those that live near water (dragonflies, water boatmen), but also stinging insects like bees and wasps. Occasionally, frogs and small reptiles are caught.
Black-capped Kingfishers hunt in open areas, keeping a look-out for prey from a favourite high perch (1-2m above the water or ground). They only rarely plunge into water to catch aquatic prey. Black-capped Kingfishers are solitary hunters and aggressively territorial. They may chase off not only other Black-caps but other species of kingfishers as well, which use similar hunting techniques.
White-throated Kingfishers are the most common kingfishers across Karnataka, and make their presence felt with loud calls. They are often sighted in urban areas, perching on telephone or electric wires or other vantage points 8-10 m above the ground. They are otherwise commonly found in rural areas, forests and river banks.
White-throated Kingfishers as a group eat a wide range of food, but each bird may specialise in a particular prey. They eat fish in the wet season, but the bulk of their diet is small creatures they can catch and kill: tadpoles, grasshoppers, lizards, insects, crabs, beetles, termites, scorpions, centipedes etc. They beat their prey against the perch to kill and remove venomous stings.
White-throated Kingfishers nest in steep earth banks besides roads and streams, and occasionally, termite mounds. They dig a tunnel about 7 cms wide, 50 cms to nearly 1 m deep, ending in a breeding chamber about 20 cms in diameter. During the construction period, the mating pair is very vocal and calls and displays to each other continuously. 4 to 7 white eggs are laid. Both parents raise the chicks.
The Collared Kingfisher is commonly spotted along the coastline and mangroves. It is large-headed, stout-bodied and short-legged and is also known as White-collared or Mangrove Kingfisher. It has a blue head, back and rump, with a wash of turquoise, and a broad, white collar on the neck that extends to the white under-parts.
Collared Kingfishers perch and wait on a branch, post, fence, mound or wire (up to 3-4 m above the ground) overlooking open grass, shallow water, mudflats or beaches. They whack larger prey against their perch. They have also been seen hammering shells against stones to get at a mollusk or hermit crab.
For nesting, they prefer to dig out a nest in dead trees or palms and sometimes take over woodpecker holes. Some even burrow into the active nests of ants and termites high in the trees, or burrow amongst the roots of a fern growing in a tree. Only occasionally do they dig out tunnel nests in earth banks or a mud lobster mound. Both parents make the nest and good nest sites are often reused in the next breeding season. 2 to 4 [usually 3] white eggs are laid. In a good season, two broods may be raised.
Stork-billed Kingfishers are the largest kingfishers (37 cms, 140-200 gms, females usually heavier) found in our state. But their sighting is low as they are shy and less noisy than other kingfishers. They have a beautiful colour combination with a coral-red bill, blue upper-parts, brown head, orange-yellow collar and under-parts, and red feet.
They usually hunt near water, both freshwater and along coasts and mangroves, particularly in habitats with suitable perches. They mainly eat fish, using their large, heavy bills to good effect to catch and kill their prey. From their perch, usually about 2-4 m above the water, they plunge into the water. They also eat crabs, insects, frogs, mice, lizards, birds and their eggs. Prey is brought back and whacked senseless against the perch.
Unlike Collared Kingfishers, Stork-billed Kingfishers are rarely found near urban areas. Mostly solitary, Stork-billed Kingfishers are territorial and will chase away even larger birds like storks and eagles from their feeding and breeding grounds. Only occasionally are they found in pairs.
This is the only kingfisher with all black and white plumage that hovers in still air. It is a great sight to see this bird hovering with its body almost vertical, with the head and bill angled sharply downwards, and wings beating very rapidly. This bird is very approachable from a boat.
Pied Kingfishers are a very distinctive bird with white-spotted black upper-parts and white under-parts. They are commonly found near water-bodies, streams, rivers and even small streams near urban settlements. A boat ride in Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary is one of the best places to find them.
A proficient predator of fish, the pied kingfisher forages from a perch or while hovering, flying low over the water before rising up to ten metres, holding a brief hover, and then plunging into the water and seizing its target in its bill. Because of the pied kingfisher’s unrivalled ability to hover, it does not always require extensive woodland around its habitat for perching and can fly as far out as three KMs from the shoreline while foraging. The pied kingfisher occupies a variety of fresh and salt-water habitats, including large, inland, slow-moving rivers, estuaries, mangroves, tidal rock pools, lagoons, dams and reservoirs, requiring some water-side perches such as trees, reeds, fences, rocks and other man-made objects. The pied kingfisher nests in holes in vertical sandbanks that are excavated by the breeding pair together.
Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher
Saving the best for the last, this is my most favourite kingfisher. It is the smallest kingfisher, measuring 10-14 cms in length including beak and tail, and weighing only 10-14 gms. It is very colourful and looks like a little fireball in flight.
It is easily recognized by its bright blue crown with a violet wash along the sides of its otherwise orange head. The upper plumage is bluish-black with glossy blue lines. The throat is white with bright orange lines at the bottom. The under plumage is a brilliant orangey-yellow. The bill and feet are orangey-red.
Like other kingfishers, the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher hunts from a perch. It feeds mainly on insects, crickets, spiders, small lizards or frogs; skink lizards seem to be a favourite. Before eating lizards or frogs, it kills them by holding them in its beak and continually hitting them against a stone or tree stump. They locate a prime area based on food sources, desirable perching trees and safe roosting sites. Like most birds, they search for their food in the mornings and evenings. If the weather is cooler, they also hunt for food during mid-day.
They begin to breed in June, with the onset of the South-west Monsoon. Their nest is a horizontal tunnel or burrow on a bank, up to a meter in length. Nests are constructed by both males and females. They take turns burrowing out a tunnel with their feet, and then they hollow out a narrow chamber at the end of the tunnel in which to lay their eggs. They spend 3 to 7 days working to complete their tunnel.
A clutch usually consists of 3 to 6 eggs, which are incubated by both the male and the female for 10-15 days. Chicks are fed geckos, skinks, snails, frogs, crickets and dragonflies. The hatchlings are altricial (without any down, blind and helpless) and require care and feeding by the parents, who bring food into the nesting chamber and keep them warm. However, the nestlings grow quickly and are soon able to travel towards the tunnel’s entrance, where they wait to be fed. It is interesting to see the size of feed growing as these fledglings grow. Young ones leave the nest when they are about 18-20 days old. A second brood may be raised if the first nesting attempt was unsuccessful.