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What is a Kingfisher?

By R. Britton
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A kingfisher is a small- to medium-sized bird and includes the kookaburras. With around 80 species and a number of subspecies found throughout the world, kingfishers are believed to have originated in the northern hemisphere, but have now been naturalized across the globe. Generally all kingfishers share some similar characteristics, despite differences in behavior, feeding, size, and color. The main similarity is the head, which is large and somewhat exaggerated in comparison to the body. The beaks of the kingfishers are long, sharp, and streamlined, allowing for quicker movement through the air when striking at prey.

In the United Kingdom, there is just one native species, which is the Common Kingfisher. This species can also be found across the rest of Europe, parts of northern Africa, Japan, China, Thailand, India, and the Australasian islands. These birds are among the most widespread of the kingfishers, with a total of seven localized subspecies across the wide native range. The biggest variation among these birds is difference in plumage color; feeding and behavior tend to remain the same.

The plumage of this species is iridescent, meaning that instead of the colors being a uniform, pigment, the plumage — up close — is actually quite dull. In the sun light, the iridescent plumage appears to be bright and vibrant. The Common Kingfisher is characterized by its vivid cobalt blue and orange plumage; shades vary slightly among the subspecies, through a range of blues and greens.

This species does not generally migrate except in areas where winter temperatures result in waterways freezing. Since they mainly eat small fish, if the water freezes they cannot reach the food and are forced to migrate to warmer regions. Nesting in hollows and cavities along the banks of rivers and streams, these birds prefer to remain very close to a stable food supply.

One of the few species native to North America is the Belted Kingfisher. It has blue and white plumage, and, similar to its European cousin, feeds mainly on small fish. Unlike most other kingfisher species, these birds do not perch on overhanging branches before diving to catch prey, but instead, hover above the water.

Australia has ten different kingfisher species, which vary hugely, from the little kingfisher, which measures just 5 inches (12 cm), to the laughing kookaburra, which is the largest kingfisher in the world, measuring 18 inches (46 cm). Across the large number of different species, these birds inhabit a wide variety of terrains, from forests to open meadowlands. Some species, such as the Red-backed Kingfisher, native to Australia, live in arid and semi-arid regions. Despite the name, not all species rely on fish as their primary food source. Many species eat small mammals, reptiles, and insects.

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Discussion Comments
By StingAuera — On Apr 04, 2014

The problem is, Kingfishers vary in appearance, so it is hard to identify one for sure. At the rate that people are bringing non-native species into the United States, I wouldn't doubt if the Kingfisher is becoming more prevalent-even in South Florida. Also, following hurricane Andrew, from a few years ago, some birds escaped from sanctuaries, if I remember correctly.

By Jewellian — On Apr 03, 2014
@SpecialBug, the article says that the Kingfisher is now "naturalized around the globe", so I suppose it is possible. But, the article also mentions freezing waterways. So I also would be interested in knowing if there is anyone out there that has spied a Kingfisher in Florida, or even in the southern portion of the United States.
By SpecialBug — On Apr 02, 2014
Lately, I have been seeing a bird in South Florida that resembles a Kingfisher. That is what I have been calling it anyway. I had never seen the bird in the area until recently. It resembled a bird that I had seen in the local zoo here. Can anyone confirm that the Kingfisher is native to Florida?
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