Sacred kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus)

Also known as: green kingfisher, New Zealand kingfisher, tree kingfisher, wood kingfisher
Synonyms: Halcyon sancta, Halcyon sanctus, Todirhamphus sanctus
GenusTodiramphus (1)
SizeLength: 18 - 23 cm (2)
Male weight: 28 - 61 g (3)
Female weight: 28 - 56 g (3)
Top facts

The sacred kingfisher is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The sacred kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a medium-sized kingfisher (4) with green to turquoise upperparts, a bright blue rump and tail, buff-coloured underparts and a broad white to buff collar around the neck. The forehead and top of the sacred kingfisher’s head are dark green, and the face is marked with a buff spot in front of the eye and a black stripe running from the bill, through the eye to the back of the neck (3) (4) (5). The flight feathers of this species are black with blue outer edges (3).

The female sacred kingfisher is similar in appearance to the male, but is generally duller and greener (3) (4). Both sexes have black to brownish legs and feet, dark brown eyes and a blackish beak, with a pale horn-coloured patch on the lower mandible (3). The juvenile sacred kingfisher looks quite similar to the female, but has buff edges to the wing-coverts and brownish edges to the feathers on the cheeks, collar and underparts (3) (4), giving a freckled appearance (5).

Five subspecies of sacred kingfisher were previously recognised, but the subspecies Todiramphus sanctus recurvirostris, distinguished by its rather flattened bill (3) (5), is now considered to be a separate species, the flat-billed kingfisher (Todiramphus recurvirostris) (6). The remaining subspecies differ in size and colouration, with some having more yellowish-buff or even cinnamon underparts (3).

The most commonly heard call of the sacred kingfisher is a rapid, noisy series of four to five repeated notes, described as ‘kik-kik-kik-kik-kik’ or ‘kek-kek-kek-kek’ (2) (3) (4), which is mainly given by the male during courtship or to advertise a territory (3). Both the male and female also use a number of other calls, including a high, squealing ‘schssk-schssk-schssk’ (2), a harsh ‘ktcha’ when attacking a predator or intruder, and a harsh scream if caught (3).

The sacred kingfisher is found across much of Australia and New Zealand, as well as from New Guinea to Indonesia, including Sumatra and Borneo. It also occurs on many surrounding islands, including New Caledonia, Norfolk Island, the Solomon Islands, Lord Howe Island and the Kermadec Islands (3) (5) (7).

In some parts of its range, the sacred kingfisher is resident year-round, but populations in southern Australia usually migrate northwards outside of the breeding season (3) (4) (5). Sacred kingfishers in New Zealand do not migrate, but may move to lower elevations during the winter months (3) (5).

Typically a woodland bird, the sacred kingfisher can be found in eucalypt woodland and other types of open forest, as well as Acacia scrub, Melaleuca swamps, tussock grassland with some trees, mangrove forest, rainforest and coastal habitats (2) (3) (4) (5). This species also occurs in open farmland, parks, gardens and roadside vegetation (2) (3) (5).

The sacred kingfisher hunts by sitting on a suitable vantage point from which it can survey the surrounding area for prey, often bobbing its head or flicking its tail as it waits (3) (5). When prey is spotted, the kingfisher swoops down to take it from the ground before returning to its perch to consume it (3) (4) (5) (8). Although it usually briefly lands on the ground to take prey, the sacred kingfisher may also snatch it without landing, sometimes after a brief hover. It will also take prey from foliage or in the air, as well as from water (3) (5).

The diet of the sacred kingfisher is quite varied, and includes a wide range of insects and other invertebrates, such as spiders, centipedes, worms and crustaceans. It also preys on small vertebrates, including fish, tadpoles and frogs, lizards, snakes, birds and mice (3) (4) (5).

The sacred kingfisher is usually seen alone or in a breeding pair (4) (5) (8) and can be quite territorial, often calling and aggressively chasing away intruders, including other bird species (3) (5). This species is monogamous, and it is thought that breeding pairs return to the same breeding and non-breeding territories year after year (3) (5).

The breeding season of the sacred kingfisher usually occurs between September and January or March, with the exact timing depending on the location (3) (5). This species usually nests in a tree hollow or in a tunnel excavated in a bank, cliff or even a termite mound (3) (4) (5) (8), with the preferred sites appearing to vary between different regions (3) (5). Both sexes help excavate the nesting tunnel, which can measure up to 30 centimetres long and ends in a chamber about 20 centimetres across (3) (5). Sometimes several holes are excavated before one is chosen (3).

The female sacred kingfisher lays a clutch of 3 to 7 eggs, which are incubated by both sexes for around 16 to 21 days (3). Both adults also help to feed the young birds (3) (4), which leave the nest at about 24 to 29 days old (3) (5). The young sacred kingfishers are fed by the adults for a further seven to ten days after leaving the nest, and the adults commonly go on to produce a second brood in the same season (3) (4) (5). In some parts of its range, the sacred kingfisher may not breed during drought years (3).

The oldest known sacred kingfisher lived to about eight years old (3).

As it has a widespread distribution and its population appears to be increasing, the sacred kingfisher is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction (3) (7). This common species is thought to be expanding its range as a result of forest clearance, which produces the open habitats that it prefers. The sacred kingfisher has also benefitted from road building, which has provided additional nest sites in banks. However, forest clearance can also reduce the availability of tree holes in which this species nests (3).

Although it is not currently facing any major threats, the sacred kingfisher is sometimes killed by introduced species such as cats, foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and stoats (Mustela species). It also faces competition for nest holes from introduced birds, including the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and common myna (Acridotheres tristis). The sacred kingfisher is occasionally killed in collisions with windows, power lines and vehicles, and has also sometimes been shot in retaliation for attacks on bees, fish or poultry, or in the mistaken belief that it damages fruit in orchards (3).

There are no specific conservation measures currently known to be in place for the sacred kingfisher.

Find out more about the sacred kingfisher and its conservation:

More information on conservation in Australia:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2013)
  2. Robson, C. (2007) New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia. New Holland Publishers, London.
  3. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2001) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 6: Mousebirds to Hornbills. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  4. Birds in Backyards - Sacred kingfisher (March, 2013)
  5. Fry, C.H., Fry, K. and Harris, A. (2010) Kingfishers, Bee-eaters and Rollers. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  6. BirdLife International - Flat-billed kingfisher (March, 2013)
  7. BirdLife International - Sacred kingfisher (March, 2013)
  8. Tzaros, C. (2005) Wildlife of the Box-Ironbark Country. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.