"Who's this perched upon the branch, waiting for the perfect chance? With eager eyes, he scans the pool, one of nature's miracles. Splash and plop - in you go, no sufferer of vertigo. Back to the branch with his prize of fish, down in one - hmmm delish! With breast bright orange and feathers blue, he's the king of the fishers - that's who" (photo courtesy of Nature's Home reader, Angela Parkes).
All birds are special, we can agree on that. But some seem to ruffle our feathers more than others, and we think the kingfisher just has to be one of them! That iridescent sheen of indigo blue, the unmistakable long and powerful beak (minnows and sticklebacks beware!) and even the beauty and uniqueness of the habitat in which you're most likely to see them, makes spotting one of these 'emperors of the waterways' an absolute treat! Let's take a moment to see one in action before we talk a little more about them:
Pretty cool huh? What's not so cool however, is the fact that these handsome little chaps (all black beak) and chapesses (orange tinge to lower part of the beak) are now listed as 'amber' in the UK Conservation Status lists - you can read more about the classifications and what they mean here. It's the same old story time and time again - lack of food and suitable habitat are putting more and more of our iconic species on these lists. To be classified at all is a stark warning and call to action, but to be labelled as amber or red sounds the alarm.
Problems only come to light once we understand the behaviours of the species in question. With this in mind, the kingfisher has evolved to require its own particular set of needs in order to survive which sadly, only contribute to their decline:
Breeding - there's none of this '25 and still living with parents' going on in the world of the kingfisher, you'd be lucky to make it to four days before you had to fly the nest and make it on your own. Kingfishers go for quantity over quality - on average, 2-3 broods are raised per year, with each brood averaging 6-7 eggs! Once fledged (24 - 37 days), the chicks are given a crash course in survival techniques (hunting for example) before they're driven out of the territory by mum and dad so that breeding can commence all over again! It's a hard life being a kingfisher chick, and only half the brood will make it past the first two weeks. Those who do make it to adulthood will be ready to breed the following year. Life expectancy for the kingfisher is low, with the oldest bird ever recorded being just 7.5 years old. As you can see already - the tender nature (and needs) of these birds, even before the habitat on which they depend is knocked out of kilter by man-made intervention is precarious to say the least - that said, if left to their own devices, population numbers will stabilise, as they have done for many thousands of years.
Feeding - so you've flown the nest, made it past the two week survival threshold, and you're feeling pretty proud that you've somehow beat the statistics and made it to adulthood - well done! Time for some tucker - favourites include a nice tasty minnow or stickleback (the latter only devoured once rendered unconscious by means of being biffed on the head so that spiky spines relax enough to be swallowed whole - head first!). If the favoured food is scarce - aquatic insects, freshwater shrimps and tadpoles will all do the job if they need to. In a perfect world - you'd find the kingfisher hunting along the banks of non-polluted, slow moving rivers or pools where fish are plentiful and habitat pure. The trouble these days is that these sorts of conditions are becoming harder to find, even places that seemingly appear to tick all of the boxes for the kingfisher may actually be so polluted that many perish due to the toxins in the water impeding the purity of the fish, which subsequently poisons our king of the fishers - who in this ecosystem is high up in the food chain.
Territory - another factor that denotes the success of survival if you're a kingfisher is suitable territory, more aptly the size and productivity of it. You could get away with a smaller, less productive patch in the summer months if you're lucky, but come winter, if you haven't secured yourself a good 1km of river (this may extend to 3-5km if a breeding pair has joined forces and combined their territories) then sadly, it's likely that you'd perish during the winter months.
So as you can see - the delicate nature and needs of the kingfisher are specialist even at the best of times, add to this - shrinking suitable habitat, starvation due to cold winters or flooding of the nests in wet summers, cat and rat predation, traffic and windscreen collisions, and increasingly polluted waters caused by industrial pollution and contamination by agricultural run-off (the long-term population declines since 1970 are generally attributed to river pollution) and you can see why these stunning birds have found themselves on the list.
The RSPB is committed to improving the status of listed species, for more information on our work in this area, see here and if you feel empowered enough to act on behalf of the king of the fishers and all wildlife alike - see our pages on protecting wildlife sites near you! Read more about kingfishers in our Bird A-Z and for a more in-depth review, see our threats and behaviours articles on the website.
Photo credit in OOA: Angela Parkes, Ben Andrew - RSPB Images.
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