Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, female, on branch

Breeding, feeding and territory

Find out more about the breeding and feeding patterns of kingfishers, and where they call home.

Breeding

Kingfishers breed in their first year, and pair-formation usually starts in February. If the male and the female have neighbouring territories, these may merge for the breeding season.

Both birds excavate the nest burrow into the stone-free sandy soil of a low stream bank, usually about 0.5m from the top. The birds choose a vertical bank clear of vegetation, since this provides a reasonable degree of protection from predators.

The nest tunnel is usually 60-90cm long, and the 6cm diameter is only a little wider than the bird. The nest chamber at the end has a slight depression to prevent eggs rolling out, but no material is brought to the nest. 2-3 broods are raised in quick succession, normally in the same nest.

The first clutch of 6-7 eggs is laid late in March or early in April. Both adults incubate the eggs, and the chicks hatch 19-21 days later. Each chick can eat 12-18 fish a day, and they are fed in rotation once a chick is fed, it moves to the back of the nest to digest its meal, causing the others to move forward.

The chicks are normally ready to leave the nest when they are 24-25 days old, but if the fish supply is poor, they can take up to 37 days.  Once out of the nest, the young are fed for only four days before the adults drive them out of the territory and start the next brood.

Kingfisher, female perched on branch in reedbed

Feeding

Kingfishers inhabit slow-moving, shallow rivers or streams which are clean enough to support abundant small fish. 

Fast-moving streams and polluted waters do not contain enough available fish, and hence do not contain kingfishers. Branches overhanging shallows make essential fishing perches.

Kingfishers eat mainly fish, chiefly minnows and sticklebacks, but they also take aquatic insects, freshwater shrimps and tadpoles etc to top up their diet. They prefer fish about 23 mm in length, but can handle anything up to 80mm long.

An ideal fishing spot is a firm perch overlooking a clear, shallow pool of water. Once the bird has located a suitable prey and assessed its depth, it dives. At the entry into water, its beak is opened and its eyes closed by the third eyelid. The bird is effectively blindfolded as it catches the fish.

On return to the perch, it repeatedly strikes the fish against the perch to kill it. Only then will the spines in the fins of some species such as sticklebacks relax to allow the bird swallow it, head first. Each bird must eat at least its own bodyweight of fish each day.

Kingfisher emerging from water with fish

Territory

Territory is extremely important for kingfishers all year round. Any bird that is unable to secure a territory with an adequate food supply is likely to perish. This is particularly important before the onset of winter. The birds start to contest territories by mid-September. A breeding pair will often divide their summer territory between them. Freezing weather can sometimes force the birds out of their territories, which often takes them to less suitable habitats or into conflict with other resident kingfishers.

The size of the territory depends on the amount of food available, and on the bird population in the area. Territories tend to cover at least 1km of river, but may extend over 3/5 km. Any nearby waterbody that provides good fishing will be included in the territory.

Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, perched on a branch in amongst reeds, Co. Durham