Urban Wildlife Series: Pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

Pied kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) are a minimalist’s wet dream. They pack up so much suave and swag for a bird with a two-tone (which is what pied means, bi-colored and not getting a pie thrown in your face) color palette, it’s just ridiculous. They are that beautiful. Out of the seven species of kingfisher found in Sri Lanka, they are the third most common (more or less) which is the same for their worldwide distribution where they are found from sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia from Turkey to India to China. Apart from their large distribution, they tend to prefer a more permanent home. They do migrate short distances depending on seasons but do not undertake continent-spanning migrations like most birds.

They have no need to hunt on land as their prey is entirely or mostly aquatic (small fish, crustaceans, aquatic insects, small frogs, etc). So, like hummingbirds, they have become adept at hovering above a stationary point and when you look at videos of them hovering, you can clearly see that only their wings move and the head is motionless and the body is positioned at a roughly 45-degree angle to the water surface. The wings move in a figure-eight position (like the infinity symbol) so they can create the lift they need to be airborne and their wings move at a rate of 10 movements per second! 

Pied Fisher exiting the water with a fish. Photograph by Anjallee Prabhakaran.

This high energy output makes them voracious eaters and they need to eat approximately 50% of their body weight, every day, to survive. They can cover large bodies of water without the constant need for a perch close by because of their amazing hovering skills (this is called “aerial perching”). They hover over the waterline, sometimes fifty feet up and once they lock down their prey (they have this amazing ability to compensate for the effects of refraction caused by water and pinpoint their prey exactly), they dive beak first (like a guided missile) and snatch their prey and gulp it down mid-flight or would take it to the perch to stun it before gulping head first (The reason why birds swallow a fish head first is because that way, the fish scales won’t irritate their insides while it travels down to the stomach).

When they would finally perch on a nearby branch, they would bob their heads up and down and start gossiping with the neighbors about the day (gets as loud as the manning market on a Saturday noon). They are very gregarious (loves company) and would hang out in small groups. Also, it is not unlikely to see large roosts at night. Males and females look alike but easy to tell them apart because of the bands on their chests. Males have a thick band on top and a thin one below and females only have one thick band which is sometimes broken down in the middle.

Photographs by Sayuru Imesh.

Like their common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) cousins, pied kingfishers make their nests on earthy banks closer to a water source. Both sexes put their backs (and beaks) into making the tunnel and it usually measures about 1m in length. Then the female lays about four to 5 eggs and the male helps with the incubation and the feeding of the female throughout the whole process. Because of their sociable nature, other members of the group would willingly help parents to look after their chicks (which is called cooperative breeding). Up to four “nannies” would volunteer their services and usually, the nannies in question are adults who failed to raise their own chicks or the parent’s adult kids from a previous litter. Guess it is family first for these critters (Somewhere, Dom Toretto sheds a tear).

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