The Monthly Web Magazine for Birdwatchers   
Home Bird Guide Features Birding news and events Bird reserves Birdwatching Clubs Mystery Bird Quiz Birdwatching FAQ's Bird Shop
 Kingfisher- Fact File


Alcedo atthis
Widely but thinly distributed resident in England, Wales and Ireland. Scarce in Scotland. Decreasing.
All kinds of fresh water, usually nesting in banks of streams. Also, in winter, coastal estuaries and rocky shores.

Bright plumage make this bird unmistakable, though often hard to see in shade of river bank. Sexes similar, but female has reddish lower mandible. Loud shrill call draws attention.

16 - 17cm (6.5")


The kingfisher's fortunes over the years have been greatly influenced by man. Early writers often remarked that the plumage was much sought after to decorate ladies' hats, fishing interests persecuted the bird and it was often admired set-up in a glass dome.

In recent times a more sympathetic public attitude and the creation of flooded sand and gravel pits has considerably increased available habitat.

The kingfisher is highly susceptible to prolonged freezing and Arctic-type winters have decimated the population. Fortunately, it has a high reproductive rate and a pair may rear three broods in a single season. As a result, numbers are soon replenished.

During a period of abundance, kingfishers nested successfully in a slope edging Mousehold Heath in Norwich. Flights to and from their feeding stations along the Wensum regularly took the parents over the always busy Barrack Street and through an intervening wood.

At rest and in full sun, a kingfisher is a superb sight dressed in cobalt-blue and orange-chestnut. Bright sealing-wax red legs and feet add a final touch of colour.

All one usually sees, however, is a flash of brilliant blue. The bird travels as such high speed that it is almost impossible to see the whirring wings. Unfortunately, many people know it only from books.

Arthur Patterson's volumes covering south-east Norfolk contain many kingfisher anecdotes. One year the birds were so numerous that over 80 were taken to a single Yarmouth taxidermist. One marshman had 11 preserved in a single display case.

On another occasion, at Breydon, a hungry kingfisher alighted on a punt gun, using it as a perch, while it fished in open water where the punt (complete with wildfowler) was moored.

There is evidence of continental kingfishers arriving on the East Coast during autumn. When light-vessels off the coast were manned, the crews from time to time reported kingfisher casualties striking the lantern during the hours of darkness. These unfortunate occurrences took place in September and October. Three examples have been recorded during a period of just over a week on Scolt Head Island, Blakeney Point and the Inner Dowsing light-vessel.

As always Birds of the Western Palearctic contains a wealth of information covering kingfisher movements. Birds summering in northern Europe, where waters are closed by ice in winter, show the strongest migratory movements. Central European populations are partially migratory and thus affected by severe weather.

In southern Europe kingfishers are mainly resident. Large-scale ringing in Germany has resulted in recoveries in Denmark and Belgium with the furthest birds moving to Spain (including the Balearics), France and Italy (including Sicily).

Outside the breeding season kingfishers are mostly solitary and secretive, roosting in dense cover near water. Each bird arrives at its roost after dark and departs before dawn. Flying attacks and aerial chases are well known. In one dispute, apparently over winter territory, a kingfisher attempted escaping by diving but the aggressor repeatedly landed on its back. Both birds continued to rise and dive, furiously beating wings. Eventually, the aggressor seized its rival by the bill and attempted to force its head under water.

Michael J. Seago

Return to Bird Guide Index

Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.