Urban Wildlife Series: Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Out of the seven species of kingfishers found in Sri Lanka, the common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) has the second most widespread distribution. Even though it is called the “common kingfisher”, it is not comparatively common (much like common sense) to see. The reason it is called common kingfisher is because of its wide distribution along Eurasia and in parts of North Africa. Hands down, it is one beautiful bird. The contrast of orange with the multiple shades of blue, neatly arranged in a form the size of a sparrow truly makes it a much sought after bird with photographers and birding enthusiasts (it is a common fact that it is not easy to get a satisfying picture of a common kingfisher).

Being a rather shy, inconspicuous bird, it tends to perch away from the crowd, overlooking a clear stream, pond or any such source of water. Since its main diet comprises species that are quite sensitive to water pollution (e.g. small fish, tadpoles, freshwater crustaceans etc), and therefore in Japan, the common kingfisher is  considered as a freshwater indicator species. Clearer the water, better are its chances of catching prey, as it has to consume 60% of its body weight every day. You might even find one perching on a tree in your garden, if it is nearby to one of its preferred habitats, like a wetland.

Speaking of the Japanese, they modeled their 300 km/h bullet trains (specifically the front face of the train) after the beak of the kingfisher. The reason being that the shape of its beak provided the ultimate aerodynamic solution for preventing the loud sonic boom (which happens every time a bullet train enters a tunnel), making the trains more sustainable and eco-friendly.

Telling the sexes apart can be quite tricky (as both are really flamboyant), but the general rule is to see if the underpart of the beak is orange. If it is, it’s a female and if the whole beak is black, it’s a male. This beak coloration is more prominent in adult females. Common kingfishers are highly territorial and there is no love lost between individuals as they are solitary birds and very much like to keep it that way. If another kingfisher even pokes its beak over the boundary, a full-on scuffle can be expected.

Males chase after females, calling continuously. This is followed by a ritual feeding which then leads to copulation (guess they do buy dinner first, huh!). Rather than conforming to the norm and building a nest, the pair straight up tunnels into the mud on a vertical riverbank, before the female deposits her eggs inside. You might wonder how on earth the newly hatched, hungry chicks find the parents and vice versa in that pitch dark tunnel (CEB/LECO does not cover kingfisher tunnels, sadly) but as always, nature has a solution. The hatchlings have a white blotch on the tip of their beak and the adults have a white patch in their face, which acts as a visual cue (like the vest a traffic warden has, with luminous stripes).

Just because it is named common (not to be confused with the Rapper/Actor, Common) does not mean that this species is not threatened. The small perks which make the common kingfisher unique also makes it sensitive to change, to which we are a part of. If we do not change our impact on the environment, it won’t be long until it is renamed as the uncommon kingfisher.

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