Courtesy of Familiar Wild Birds {1883}

The Kingfisher of Britain. Alcedo atthis

The Kingfisher belongs to the Order od birds known as the Coraciformes and the Family Alcedinidae. The genus name of Alcedo derives from Greek meaning halycon and atthis alludes to a beautiful woman of Lesbos, favoured by Sappho. There is a European sub species Alcedo atthis ispidia.

The common name means literally the Chief of the fishers, from the Anglo Saxon cyning, a king or chief of a tribbe + fisher. The name occurs in Turner { 1544} as Kyngesfissher, In Merrett {1667} as Kingsfisher and in Willughby as Kingfisher as it as been known ever since.


King fisher eating a tadpole.

Courtesy of Pierre Dalous CC BY-sa 3.0 License.

Description of the Kingfisher

The beautiful iridescent plumage of this handsome bird make readily identifiable, when indeed it can be observed because of its elusive nature. the plumage is a brilliant blue green above and reddish chestnut below, broad chestnut stripe through the eye. The bill is longish and dagger like . During the breeding season the bill of the female has a reddish base as opposed to the male's which is all black. In relation to its body size the wings are relatively short, the tail medium short, neck short, legs are very short. Juveniles have a duller more greener plumage.

Length 16cm. Wingspan-25cm, Weight male and female 40g. 

They have a direct , swift,  whirring flight sometimes hovers. Dives from a favoured perch or from the air. Habitually perches on a vantage point overlooking the water it occupies. 

Lifestyle of the Kingfisher.

The Kingfisher is a resident bird that may be encountered along the banks of many lakes, rivers, canals, streams and brooks. This species has a comparatively restricted range, being confined to the southern half of the Western Palaeartic Region, where it varies in length of wing from 3.2 to 2.95 inches, depending on which part of the region they occur.

In common with other birds of a bright plumage this colourful bird tends to frequent places of seclusion. It favours slow moving rivers, brooks and stream and small lakes where it may live unmolested. However, the districts were it haunts does not need to be wooded, so long as there are bushes, including brambles, along the waterside they seem to be content enough.

In a wooded valley where the trees meet overhead the fleeting sight of electric blue flashing by in the gloom is a sight worthy of note to any naturalist. If one has been fortunate enough to encounter a Kingfisher  without being observed, or indeed as I have done, sat quietly in the habitat of this bird, when one has perched within an observable distance, and watched its action when it has been searching for food it is an amazing experience.

It eagerly scans the water below its perch, staying perfectly still, when suddenly it darts into the water and just as quickly returns to the perch with an hapless fish in its beak. The fish is subjected to few quick taps against the branch before being expertly adjusted by the beak into a position for easy swallowing. When young require food the bird flies off with the fish to its place of abode. The Kingfisher outside the breeding season is a solitary bird having acquired its own territory along the the water body, from which intruders are driven away. It is not a commonly seen bird, because even where it does occur its need for seclusion make them difficult to spot. Most of the year any Kingfisher that I have encountered have been lone birds. 

That said if one knows the birds territory one will {with patience or good fortune} come upon a favourite perch used by the bird. These perches tend to be frequently used. The perch maybe  a stout bramble growing over a stream, a stump or an old root on the bank, or even a dead stick in the middle of the stream.

The flight of the Kingfisher is one of speed yet the flight is not sustained over great distances. However, it is capable of amazing aerial agility having the ability to twist and turn at full speed avoiding branches and other obstacles with ease.

Although the call of the Kingfisher is a sharp shrill 'peep' it is as a general rule a silent bird. besides fish which is the mainstay of their diet  they will also take various sorts of insects and their larvae. Any food that can not be digested is discarded in the form of regurgitated pellets, which are usually deposited in the place where they roost or within the breeding tunnel. 

Breeding and young

It is thought that Kingfishers pair for life. The breeding season commences in April or early May when the first eggs are laid, with two or three broods being raised in a season. The nest is located in the banks generally near the water , but sometimes some distance away from it, either using a disused rat hole  or burrowing out a tunnel for itself, which as an upward inclination usually about  a meter or so long which is expanded at the end of the burrow where the eggs are deposited.

Kingfisher are not 'house proud' and the floor of the nesting area becomes full of discarded food in the form of  pellets which are trodden in. Indeed these pellets are often used to deposit the eggs upon.  The first of these are found during April , May or even June number from five to ten  and are glossy white, although the contained yoke may give them a rosy tinge.

The incubation may take up to 21 days. When the young hatch they are naked with comparatively short bills which have still not reached their full size when the young birds fledge which is in another 23-26 days. The birds feed their young for a further two weeks or so, before they become independent.   

Conservation issues

The Kingfisher is on the Amber list of Conservation Concern in the UK. The criteria for this is that the species has suffered declines in population/distribution numbers over the last forty years or so. In the UK. there was an estimated 4,300-7,100 birds  according to the last estimates done in the year 2000.

Reuse of images

The images on this page may be reused . However, the name of the relevant author must be attributed along with any accompanying license.

UK conservation status 2021

UK-Amber list due to declines in population/distribution over the last fifty years or so.

Europe-Regarded as being vulnerable.

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