a web page by Don Roberson
  • 9 species worldwide
  • DR personal total: 9 species (100%), 7 photo'd

The Cerylid Kingfishers are one of three distinct groups of kingfishers. Known as the Water Kingfishers, these are often the conspicuous kingfishers seen hovering over lakes, ponds, and marshes around much of the globe. They range from high to low latitudes in Eurasia, Africa, and the New World, but are missing from Australasia. Pied Kingfisher is a widespread and common species in the Old World. Here (left) it is working above a small pool in otherwise dry savanna of east Africa. It has also been seen fishing up to 3 miles from shore on large African lakes, and may be considered the most advanced of all the kingfishers (Fry, Fry & Harris 1992).

Kingfishers have traditionally been placed in a single family, but there are three distinct lineages well-supported by a range of molecular, anatomical, and molt evidence (e.g., Moyle 2006). Although most authorities still considered them one family, it is good to learn the three major groups.

The largest kingfisher in the world is Giant Kingfisher (above) of sub-Saharan Africa. Although we often think of these type of kingfishers when we think of the family, there are only 9 species of Cerylid kingfishers and thus they comprise only 10% of the world's kingfisher, the rest of which are in other subfamilies.

The water kingfishers are the classic "king fishers" — they dive for fish in ponds and rivers, and are often found perched near water. This group of familiar kingfishers is the only one to have reached the New World; the other two families are strictly Old World birds. There are just six kingfishers in the New World: Belted (below), Ringed Megaceryle torquata, Amazon Chloroceryle amazona, Green C. americana, Green-and-rufous C. inda, and American Pygmy Kingfisher C. aenea.

I have a friend who studied the five Neotropical kingfishers for his PhD thesis. Naming no names, James, I summarize his conclusions this way: "big kingfishers eat big fish, little kingfishers eat little fish."

This Pied Kingfisher (right) has pretty good size fish, it seems to me. In contrast, the Belted Kingfisher (series below) has a very tiny fish.

May I now have my PhD, please, having shown the contrary?

The five New World cerylid kingfishers are sexually dimorphic. On the widespread Belted Kingfisher the female has a rufous band below the blue band shown in both sexes. My series (above) is of a male. The male Green Kingfisher (right) lacks the female's rufous breastband (left).

Most of the Cerylid Kingfishers are territorial loners. Crested Kingfisher (left), of eastern Asia, generally hunts solitarily along stretches of wild rivers running down out of the Himalayas. They spend much of their time perched on a rock or branch over the river (or here, at the edge of a dam), and dive obliquely for a fish. They do not dive from hovering flight, as do many others of this family. Crested is the most cold-hardy of all kingfishers and tolerates wintry conditions at high elevations as long as the streams remain unfrozen (Fry, Fry & Harris 1992).

All Water Kingfishers breed by excavating tunnels into an earthen bank. Both parents are involved in digging the burrow, incubating the eggs, and then feeding the young. Birds tend to be very shy around nest sites. Indeed, despite how conspicuous these kingfishers may appear to be, they are often difficult to approach closely.

Photos: The top Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis was foraging over the Tarangire River in Tarangire Nat'l Park, Tanzania, in Aug 2002; my other Pied Kingfisher shot (the one with the fish) was from a hide in Kruger Nat'l Park, South Africa, in July 1996. The Giant Kingfisher Megaceryle maxima was in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, in July 2005. The fish-tossing Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon was in Monterey Co., California, on 10 Jan 2004. The female Green Kingfisher Chloroceryle americana was in the Brazilian Pantanal in Aug 1999; the male was on the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, on 27 Dec 2007. The Crested Kingfisher Megaceryle lugubris was at Ramnagar, India, on 13 Mar 2001. All photos © Don Roberson; all right reserved.

Bibliographic note:
Family book:
Fry, C. Hilary, Kathie Fry, and Alan Harris. 1992. Kingfishers, Bee-eaters & Rollers. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Hilary Fry is well-known as a co-author of the fabulous Birds of Africa handbook series. He has also done a lot of research on bee-eaters and, to a lesser extent, kingfishers. His earlier family book on Bee-eaters (1984) in the Poyser series was well received. This volume, written a dozen years later, is expanded to cover the kingfishers and rollers, but Fry's forte remains the bee-eaters. I found the bee-eater text much better than the kingfisher text. On the other hand, Alan Harris — the artist for this 1992 book — does a fine job with this colorful family, and thus this is a very attractive book. Leafing through the plates is a great treat [like all the family books in these series, the plates are grouped together in the front, with the text following].

Fry's species-level taxonomy is rather conservative, especially these days. He includes only 87 species of kingfishers while Woodall (2001) has 92 species. I think the latter is nearer the mark given current trends. Fry, Fry & Harris follow the Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) taxonomy at the family level, and thus discuss three separate families of kingfishers [but their Dacelonidae became the Halcyonidae by Woodall (2001) on priority grounds].

Perhaps the most annoying part of this book to me is the repeated statement "nothing is known" about this or that species. Consider the White-rumped Kingfisher Halcyon fulgida of Lombok, Sumbawa, and Flores in the Lesser Sundas. This book says "almost nothing is on record" about the species, which is "barely known" but "must be unmistakable." Perhaps that was a fair statement in 1984, but by 1992 surely quite a bit was "known." I believe Ben King had been running Lesser Sunda tours for a decade and routinely found this species. According to Woodall (2001) it is considered "widespread, and fairly common" on at least Lombok and Flores. It was not that the species was not "known" by 1992 — it was that much new information had not yet been published. Had the authors or publisher had the text reviewed by some knowledgeable birders, they could have added a lot. But, like many academic efforts, the unpublished knowledge held by birders was overlooked in favor of a simple literature search. Thus this 1992 book essentially recites a 1960s level of knowledge. Nothing was "dug out" about the little-known species.

The net effect is that the African species that the Frys know well are nicely covered, but Asian and Australasian species receive comparatively cursory review. So this is a pretty book but not a great family resource. Today, with Woodall (2001) available, that HBW volume is the preferred text. Plus it has spectacular photos and exceptional artwork!

There is another major family book — two volumes, in fact — by Forshaw & Cooper (1983-1985). These coffee table tomes were priced in the thousand of dollars and may have made money for the author and artist, but are unavailable to the rest of us. I've never even seen one. Unlike their earlier work with parrots, a cheap, popularized single-volume version has not appeared.

Literature cited:

Christidis, L, and W.E. Boles. 2008. Systematics and taxonomy of Australian Birds. CSIRO Publ, Sydney.

Dickinson, E., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Forshaw, J.M., and W.T. Cooper. 1983-1985. Kingfishers and Related Birds. 2 vols (Kingfishers). Lansdowne Editions, Sydney.

Fry, C.H., K. Fry, and A. Harris. 1992. Kingfishers, Bee-eaters, and Rollers. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Moyle, R.G. 2006. A molecular phylogeny of kingfishers (Aves: Alcedinidae) with insights into early biogeographic history. Auk 123: 487-499.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Woodall, P.F. 2001. Family Alcedinidae (Kingfishers), pp. 130-249 in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 6. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.




  page created 4–11 Oct 2003, revised 25-29 Feb 2008  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved