KINGFISHER (Ger.[1] Königsfischer; Walloon Roi-péheux=pêcheur), the Alceḍo ispida of ornithologists, one of the most beautiful and well-known of European birds, being found, though nowhere very abundantly, in every European country, as well as in North Africa and South-Western Asia as far as Sindh. Its blue-green back and rich chestnut breast render it conspicuous as it frequents the streams and ponds whence it procures its food, by plunging almost perpendicularly into the water, and emerging a moment after with the prey—whether a small fish, crustacean, or an aquatic insect—it has captured. In hard frosts it resorts to the sea-shore, but a severe winter is sure to occasion a great mortality in the species, for many of its individuals seem unable to reach the tidal waters where only in such a season they could obtain sustenance; and to this cause rather than any other is perhaps to be ascribed its general scarcity. Very early in the year it prepares its nest, which is at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank, and therein the six or eight white, glossy, translucent eggs are laid, sometimes on the bare soil, but often on the fishbones which, being indigestible, are thrown up in pellets by the birds; and, in any case, before incubation is completed these rejectamenta accumulate so as to form a pretty cup-shaped structure that increases in bulk after the young are hatched, but, mixed with their fluid excretions and with decaying fishes brought for their support, soon becomes a dripping fetid mass.

The kingfisher is the subject of a variety of legends and superstitions, both classical and medieval. Of the latter one of the most curious is that having been originally a plain grey bird it acquired its present bright colours by flying towards the sun on its liberation from Noah’s ark, when its upper surface assumed the hue of the sky above it and its lower plumage was scorched by the heat of the setting orb to the tint it now bears.[2] More than this, the kingfisher was supposed to possess many virtues. Its dried body would avert thunderbolts, and if kept in a wardrobe would preserve from moths the woollen stuffs therein laid, or hung by a thread to the ceiling of a chamber would point with its bill to the quarter whence the wind blew. All readers of Ovid (Metam., bk. xi.) know how the faithful but unfortunate Ceyx and Alcyone were changed into kingfishers—birds which bred at the winter solstice, when through the influence of Aeolus, the wind-god and father of the fond wife, all gales were hushed and the sea calmed so that their floating nest might ride uninjured over the waves during the seven proverbial “Halcyon days”; while a variant or further development of the fable assigned to the halcyon itself the power of quelling storms.[3]

The common kingfisher of Europe is the representative of a well-marked family of birds, the Alcedinidae or Halcyonidae of ornithologists, which is considered by most authorities[4] to be closely related to the Bucerotidae (see Hornbill); but the affinity can scarcely be said as yet to be proved. Be that as it may, the present family forms the subject of an important work by Bowdler Sharpe.[5] Herein are described one hundred and twenty-five species, nearly all of them being beautifully figured by Keulemans, and that number may be taken even now as approximately correct; for, while the validity of a few has been denied by some eminent men, nearly as many have since been made known, and it seems likely that two or three more described by older writers may yet be rediscovered. These one hundred and twenty-five species Sharpe groups in nineteen genera, and divides into two sub-families, Alcedininae and Daceloninae,[6] the one containing five and the other fourteen genera. With existing anatomical materials perhaps no better arrangement could have been made, but the method afterwards published by Sundevall (Tentamen, pp. 95, 96) differs from it not inconsiderably. Here, however, it will be convenient to follow Sharpe. Externally, which is almost all we can at present say, kingfishers present a great uniformity of structure. One of their most remarkable features is the feebleness of their feet, and the union (syndactylism) of the third and fourth digits for the greater part of their length; while, as if still further to show the comparatively functionless character of these members, in two of the genera, Alcyone and Ceyx, the second digit is aborted, and the birds have but three toes. In most forms the bill does not differ much from that of the common Alcedo ispida, but in Syma its edges are serrated, while in Carcineutes, Dacelo and Melidora the maxilla is prolonged, becoming in the last a very pronounced hook. Generally the wings are short and rounded, and the tail is in many forms inconspicuous; but in Tanysiptera, one of the most beautiful groups, the middle pair of feathers is greatly elongated and spatulate, while this genus possesses only ten rectrices, all the rest having twelve. Sundevall relies on a character not noticed by Sharpe, and makes his principal divisions depend on the size of the scapulars, which in one form a mantle, and in the other are so small as not to cover the back. The Alcedinidae are a cosmopolitan family, but only one genus, Ceryle, is found in America, and that extends as well over a great part of the Old World, though not into the Australian region, which affords by far the greater number both of genera and species, having no fewer than ten of the former and fifty-nine of the latter peculiar to it.[7]

In habits kingfishers display considerable diversity, though all, it would seem, have it in common to sit at times motionless on the watch for their prey, and on its appearance to dart upon it, seize it as they fly or dive, and return to a perch where it may be conveniently swallowed. But some species, and especially that which is the type of the family, are not always content to await at rest their victim’s showing itself. They will hover like a hawk over the waters that conceal it, and, in the manner already described, precipitate themselves upon it. This is particularly the way with those that are fishers in fact as well as in name; but no inconsiderable number live almost entirely in forests, feeding on insects, while reptiles furnish the chief sustenance of others. The last is characteristic of at least one Australian form, which manages to thrive in the driest districts of that country, where not a drop of water is to be found for miles, and the air is at times heated to a degree that is insupportable by most animals. The belted kingfisher of North America, Ceryle alcyon, is a characteristic bird of that country, though its habits greatly resemble those of the European species; and the so-called “laughing jackass” of New South Wales and South Australia, Dacelo gigas—with its kindred forms, D. leachi, D. cervina and D. occidentalis, from other parts of the country—deserve special mention. Attention must also be called to the speculations of Dr Bowdler Sharpe (op. cit., pp. xliv.–xlvii.) on the genetic affinity of the various forms of Alcedinidae, and it is to be regretted that hitherto no light has been shed by palaeontologists on this interesting subject, for the only fossil referred to the neighbourhood of the family is the Halcyornis toliapicus of Sir R. Owen (Br. Foss. Mamm. and Birds, p. 554) from the Eocene of Sheppey—the very specimen said to have been previously placed by König (Icon. foss. sectiles, fig. 153) in the genus Larus.  (A. N.) 

  1. But more commonly called Eisvogel, which finds its counterpart in the Anglo-Saxon Isern or Isen.
  2. Rolland, Faune populaire de la France, ii. 74.
  3. In many of the islands of the Pacific Ocean the prevalent kingfisher is the object of much veneration.
  4. Cf. Eyton, Contrib. Ornithology (1850), p. 80; Wallace, Ann. Nat. History, series 2, vol. xviii. pp. 201, 205; and Huxley, Proc. Zool. Society (1867), p. 467.
  5. A Monograph of the Alcedinidae or Family of the Kingfishers, by R. B. Sharpe, 4to (London, 1868–1871). Some important anatomical points were briefly noticed by Professor Cunningham (Proc. Zool. Soc., 1870, p. 280).
  6. The name of this latter sub-family as constituted by Sharpe would seem to be more correctly Ceycinae—the genus Ceyx, founded in 1801 by Lacépède, being the oldest included in it. The word Dacelo, invented by Leach in 1815, is simply an anagram of Alcedo, and, though of course without any etymological meaning, has been very generally adopted.
  7. Cf. Wallace, Geog. Distr. Animals, ii. 315.