The kingfisher

David Chapman

Small in size but big in personality, find out about one of our most beautiful native birds, the kingfisher.

The kingfisher must be one of our most exciting birds; it has incredible colour, oodles of character and is larger than life, which is a good job because, with a height of only 9cm, the kingfisher is, surprisingly, not much bigger than a chaffinch.

I think we all imagine kingfishers to be bigger than they are. We are all familiar with them from images in books and on television but these media don’t often provide us with a scale. It is almost as if, for every encounter with a kingfisher in a book or magazine, its size increases in our psyche, so that if we are lucky enough to see one in the flesh we are surprised by just how small they are.

Small is beautiful and the beauty of a kingfisher is enhanced by a mesmerising mixture of colours. W.H. Davies put it better than I might in his poem simply entitled The Kingfisher when he wrote, "it was the rainbow gave thee birth, and left thee all her lovely hues". Quite poetic but, to be fair, if it was a rainbow that coloured the kingfisher then it didn’t relinquish all of its many hues - it is more the intensity and contrast of a limited palette that provides the kingfisher with its remarkable plumage.

The kingfisher is essentially just two colours, but what a duo of colours to choose; orange underneath and blue on top, with red legs. The orange is a deep, warm, saturated one which is in contrast to the tantalising and slightly cold blue. Tantalising because of its iridescence; in one light it can be cobalt, in another it can be green and maybe this is where Davies found his rainbow. 

In any light it is the blue on the back of the bird, rather than on its wings, that is the most vivid, it is this streak that we might notice as a bird flies past along a river.

Hunting habits of the kingfisher

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the diet of a kingfisher is almost exclusively fish. The hunting technique of a kingfisher involves either perching or, in the absence of a suitable perch, hovering over the water. 

Once a fish is spotted the kingfisher must make some sort of judgement as to how deep the fish is, and this is why it prefers to hunt in shallow water. The kingfisher must also make some allowance for the refraction of light through the water’s surface because when it dives it closes its eyes, using its third eyelids, just before impact with the water. The momentum of the kingfisher carries it completely under water and with its beak open it attempts to seize the prey before bobbing up to the surface and flying back to its perch.

Fortunately, kingfishers are now doing very well in Britain and their population has increased by about three quarters in the last decade, though recent cold winters must have had a negative impact. They are almost exclusively bound to fresh water, usually preferring rivers, but in winter they can be found at less favoured spots including ponds in gardens, streams and estuaries.

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