Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

French: Martin-pĂȘcheur d'Europe
GenusAlcedo (1)
SizeLength: 17-19.5 cm (of which bill = 4 cm) (2)
Top facts

The kingfisher is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Specially protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (3). Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Amber List (medium conservation concern) (4).

The beautiful iridescent plumage of the kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) makes it one of our most colourful and instantly recognisable birds; despite this it is rarely seen due to its shy nature (2). The upperparts are bright blue, while the underparts are a rich chestnut-red (5), although if seen in flight these colours may not be very obvious (6). The bill is very long and dagger-like (5). Although the sexes are generally similar, in breeding pairs they can be distinguished by the bill; in females it has a red base, whereas in males it is completely black (2). Although similar to adults, kingfisher juveniles have duller, greener plumage (2).

In Britain, the kingfisher is widespread (5); its stronghold is central and southern England (7), becoming scarce in Scotland (5). Until the mid 1980s, the kingfisher underwent a decline in both range and numbers in its main habitat of linear waterways. Since then, it seems to have experienced a recovery, however it is not yet clear if this recovery is complete (8). Elsewhere, the kingfisher is found across Europe, and in most of Asia, reaching as far east as Japan. It also occurs in Africa south of the Sahara (5).

May inhabit all types of fresh water, including ponds, canals, rivers and streams (5). The kingfisher may also exploit brackish waters on the coast and marshes (5).

The kingfisher feeds mainly on fish and invertebrates, which it catches by perching on a convenient branch or other structure overhanging the water, and plunging into the water when suitable prey comes within striking distance (2). If a suitable perch is not present, individuals may hover over the water whilst searching for prey (2).

During the breeding season, kingfisher pairs perform a display flight whilst calling. The nest consists of a tunnel in a riverbank or amongst the roots of a tree; both sexes help to excavate the tunnel, which terminates in a rounded chamber. In April or May six to seven whitish eggs are laid on the bare earth, but after some time regurgitated fish bones form a lining to the nest chamber. Both parents incubate the eggs for 19 to 21 days. The young kingfishers fledge after around 23 to 27 days, before this time they may eagerly approach the entrance of the tunnel when waiting to be fed (5).

The kingfisher population undergoes fluctuations, but there is no long-term trend in numbers. It is vulnerable to spells of severe winter weather, since when water bodies freeze over kingfishers are unable to feed (6).

The kingfisher is fully protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (3).

For more on the kingfisher:

 For more information on the kingisher and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D., & Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended (November 2002):
  4. RSPB (2003) The population status of birds in the UK:
  5. Gooders, J. (1982) Collins British Birds. William Collins Sons and Co Ltd, London.
  6. RSPB (2003): Pers. comm.
  7. Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A. D. Poyser Ltd, Calton.
  8. BTO: Breeding birds of the wider countryside (November 2002):