The most stunning UK bird has to be the kingfisher with its vivid blue and orange plumage. At only 17cm long this little bird could fit into the palm of your hand.
Protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, kingfishers are on the amber list and according to the RSPB there are between 3,800-6,400 breeding pairs in the UK.
Kingfishers favour slow moving or still water, shallow rivers and streams. They will even take a chance with a garden pond if there are small fish in it. They feast mainly on minnows and sticklebacks, but will top up with shrimps and tadpoles. Surprisingly they can eat fish up to 80mm long, but prefer those around 23mm in length.
Astonishingly these birds fish ‘blind’. They choose a perch above the water where they can keep an eye out for a suitable fish and when they spot one, they dive with an open beak and eyes closed by a third eyelid.
On scooping up the prey the kingfisher will swiftly return to its perch and bash the fish repeatedly until the spines in the fins relax and allow the bird to swallow it whole, normally head first. A kingfisher has to eat its own bodyweight of fish each day (between 34-46g).
Remarkably kingfishers nest in a tunnel, which can be up to 90cm long. The birds excavate the burrow in the bank of a stream and choose sandy, stone-free soil. They make a small depression at the end of the tunnel, which forms the egg chamber. The birds lay the eggs directly on to the sand and have two or three broods laying up to seven eggs at a time. The first brood is usually laid In late-March or early-April. Adults share the incubation for around three weeks. From then on life becomes very frantic indeed. The hungry chicks can eat 12-18 fish each every day.
Chicks fledge when they are about 24 days old, unless the fish supply is poor. When this happens the chicks can stay in the burrow for over five weeks. However, once out of the nest Mum and Dad don’t look after their babies for long. After four days they drive them away. Kingfishers are extremely territorial as an adequate food supply is vital to ensure their survival. Territories can extend from one to five kilometres, depending on how numerous the fish are.
In freezing weather birds may be forced out of their territories and have to fish further afield. Some will move to estuaries and along the coast.
Sadly, kingfishers don’t live very long. The baby birds are lucky to survive more than a week or two. However, around a quarter survive to breed the following year and this maintains the population. Few birds live longer than one breeding season.
River pollution is a big threat. Chemicals and contamination kills the fish the kingfishers rely on and according to the RSPB the long-term population declines since 1970 are generally attributed to river pollution.
Disturbance by humans causes serious problems and can make the broods fail. Kingfishers are shy and won’t enter the nest burrow if humans are near. The chicks can weaken quickly and stop calling for food. This can make the kingfishers assume their babies are well fed, so they stop feeding them with fatal results.
Works along riverbanks using heavy machinery can also destroy kingfisher nests.
These stunning birds are little jewels along our riverbanks and are delightful to watch. What a shame their lives are so short, but when you see the intense effort and energy they require to keep well-fed, it is hardly surprising that the balance of their lives is so fragile.
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