The kingfisher

The kingfisher

The electric flash of blue as a kingfisher whizzes past can cause a stir at any time of year but, as the colours fade in autumn, these birds become even more visible. Look out for them watching for fish from their perches or darting along wetlands. This week we examine their life cycle and some of the threats facing this riverside royalty.

These brilliant birds will have spent the summer busily feeding their chicks, tucked away in a bankside nest. In early spring, the kingfishers will use their strong beaks to dig a tunnel in the banks of rivers and streams, perching on the excavated ledge and removing the soil. This is no easy task for a bird of about 15cm – the tunnels can reach almost a metre in length, so the breeding pair will have to take shifts at digging into the bank while the other finds food. The tunnel ends in a small nest chamber, in which they lay their eggs, often having two or even three broods in a season.

Eggs will be laid in late April or early May and incubated for around three weeks before hatching. Kingfishers, despite their beautiful appearance, inhabit some of the more squalid nests in the bird world. The bones and scales in the fish they eat are indigestible, so the birds cough them up as pellets. The smell can be strong by the time the chicks start to fledge, and the adult pair will often find a new home for any subsequent broods! The parents have their work cut out, with some hungry broods needing over 100 fish a day to keep them going.

Sadly, juvenile kingfishers have extremely low survival rates. Many will perish after their first feed as their feathers become waterlogged upon their first dive. This is one of the reasons kingfishers have multiple broods, to give a better chance that some will survive. Kingfishers are also heavily affected by cold winters. In cold weather, the kingfisher’s fishy food will head to deeper water. As the fish move, it becomes hard for the birds to find enough to eat, and in freezing temperatures they may not be able to fish at all. Wet spring weather can also lead to nest chambers flooding, further harming kingfisher populations.

The Trust aims to create healthy habitats on our nature reserves and the wider landscape that are more resilient to the effects brought about by climate change. In this way, we can create a nature recovery network, where wildlife populations can spread throughout our two counties and beyond.