Kingfishers of Sri Lanka

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Black-capped Purple Kingfisher
Black-capped Purple Kingfisher
photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 by Sumeet Moghe

BIRDS: Kingfishers are distributed worldwide except in the polar regions, high altitudes, and remote islands. They are concentrated in Southeast Asia, New Guinea and tropical Africa. There are 90 species of kingfishers in the world. They belong to the family Alcedinidae which is divided into three subfamilies.

The Kingfishers, unlike certain other species of birds, show an unmistakeable general similarity. They have strong, straight and pointed beaks, which are long, enabling them to catch fish easily. They have compact bodies, short necks and large heads.


Their legs are rather short and their toes are syndactyl. This means that they have three toes in front of their foot and one at the back. In some cases the second toe is much reduced or totally absent as in the Three-toed Kingfisher.

The wings are short and rounded and the tails vary in length. Kingfishers are all brightly coloured birds that are strikingly beautiful. The two sexes are generally alike. Kingfishers have large eyes and good eye sight which enables them to see fish in the water below.

Kingfishers are sit-and-wait predators, scanning a wide area from a favorite perch. If there is no suitable perch, they may hover over the water. Solitary birds are seen and also pairs but rarely in groups.

Kingfishers dig their nests in earth banks along rivers or in the coastal areas. Their nests have also been found in mounds of earth, anthills and even, on occasion, in a hole in a tree.

The pair build the nest together. For those that dig holes, the male starts off by flying at the surface and stabbing at it with his bill until he has created a grip from which he can start digging. The male and female then take turns to dig the tunnel.

These nests have a long, upward entrance hole at the end of which is the nest chamber. The nest chamber dips down at the end of the tunnel so that the young in the nest cannot roll out.

Depending on the species two to six pure white eggs are laid. Since they nest in holes and there is no need to camouflage the eggs. In fact, the white eggs are better seen in the dark recesses of the nest hole. The female usually incubates in the initial stages, but the male eventually takes over.

The young are naked and ugly but soon take on the bright colours of their species. Towards the end just before the young leave, the nest and the nest chamber take on a very foul smell. This is due to the putrefying pieces of fish that fall when the young are fed, and the excreta of the young.

In Sri Lanka we have seven species of kingfishers. They are the Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), the Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), the Ceylon Blue-eared Kingfisher (Alcedo meninting), the Three-toed Kingfisher (Ceyx erithacus), the Stork-billed Kingfisher (Pelargopis capensis),the White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) and the Black-capped Purple Kingfisher (Halcyon pileata).

Of these six are resident in the island and one, the Black-capped Purple Kingfisher, is a rare migrant. The Blue-eared Kingfisher, though a resident, is also rare. None of the kingfishers found on the island are endemic.

All kingfishers are carnivorous and, as their name implies, live mainly on fish. Though originally all kingfishers would have caught and eaten fish, with time and necessity, the food preferences of some species seem to have changed. They have adapted to a diet of small trerrestrial species and subsist on crustacea, insects, small vetebrates etc. It is now not surprising to see some species of kingfishers far away from water. They hunt any slow-moving prey that are within their reach.

Many of them eat mainly insects and catch them in flight. They also consume snakes, lizards and other small vertebrates. These changes in dietry habits may have been due to the loss or reduction of their habitats close to water or due to the reducing resource of fish. It also may have been due to an increase in the kingfisher population competing for the same amount of fish. Evolutionary changes and the ability to adapt to new diets have made these changes possible.

In Sri Lanka, we see that the White-breasted Kingfisher has changed its dietry habits and is rarely seen catching fish. In fact in some instances it lives far from any water body. The Black-capped Purple kingfisher can also survive on a non fish diet. Both these birds also come to the ground to catch their prey, though the Black-capped Purple Kingfisher does not linger on the ground for sometime as the White-breasted Kingfisher does.

All kingfishers dash their prey on the branch that they are perched on or drop it from a height to kill it. Most birds flip their prey in the air and catch it in their beaks to swallow it generally head first.

The method of catching their prey, however, has not changed much. The bird makes a sudden swoop from its perch or from the air, into the water, the ground or the herbage to catch their prey. It quite often emerges with its prey in its beak.

Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

Pied Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
photo by Ian N. Whitelicensed under BY-NC-SA 2.0

It is called the River Kingfisher and called Gomera Kalapu Pilihuduwa in Sinhala and Meenkotti in Tamil

The Pied Kingfisher, as its name implies, is a black and white bird and the only kingfisher in Sri Lanka without a brightly coloured plumage. This bird, though lacking the bright colours of the others, is quite conspicuous with its contrasting black and white, speckled and barred plumage. The Pied Kingfisher is a little larger than a mynah.

The sexes are similar except that the male has two black lines (gorgets) across its breast whilst the female has only one. It is also called the River Kingfisher because it is quite often seen flying up and down rivers, streams and canals, sometimes hovering above the water, looking for its prey.

The Pied Kingfisher, which has a voracios apetite, lives mainly on fish, but eats tadpoles and small aquatic animals. It is a resident of the low country wet and dry zones of the island. The Pied Kingfisher can be seen quite often, singly or in pairs, hovering, body upright, over the surface of water ways, chirping pleasantly waiting for a shoal of fish to pass by.

It also flies up and down a stream, very methodically, in search of fish. When the fish are sighted it drops down like a dead weight, beak in front and hits the water with a plop. It emerges out of the water, quite often with a fish in its beak. Then it flies on to a branch close by and batters the poor fish to death. It then flips the fish in the air and catches the fish head first in its beak and swallows it.

Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Common Kingfisher (female)
Common Kingfisher (female)
photo by Martha de Jong-Lantink licensed under BY-NC-ND 2.0

It is called the Ceylon Small Blue Kingfisher. In Sinhala it is calld Podu Mal Pilihuduwa and in Tamil Meenkotti.

This kingfisher is slightly larger than a sparrow. It has brilliant blue upper parts and chestnut underparts. The ear coverts of this bird are chestnut. This being the most noticeable difference between it and the Blue-eared Kingfisher. It is a small, stout little bird with a beak that is disproportionately large.

It has a very rapid flight and, when flying over water, keeps to about a foot or two above the surface. The sexes are alike.The common kingfisher is distributed throughout the country, but is less plentiful in the hills, especially at the higher elevations. It is quite common near fresh water of all descriptions in the lowland and occaisonally the tidal creeks and the seashore. They are seen singly or in pairs, very rarely in greater numbers.

Its diet consists of small fish, aquatic insects, small frogs, small crabs etc. It seems quite partial to mudskippers, which are found in mangroves, on muddy beaches and banks . Some of the fish that this bird catches is equal to it in length.

The common kingfisher is easily seen as it perches in the open on bare twigs and posts just above the surface of the water, waiting for its prey. Occaisionally it hovers at a height of about eight to twelve feet above the water waiting for a fish to come up. When a fish does surface it plummets down into the water, plunges in and invariably comes up with a fish. After returning to its original perch, the fish is swallowed. If the fish wriggles too much, it is battered against the perch and when dead, swallowed head first.

Ceylon Blue-eared Kingfisher (Alcedo meninting)

Blue Eared Kingfisher
Blue Eared Kingfisher
photo by T_Monk licensed under CC BY 2.0

It is called Neela Karnial Pilihuduwa in Sinhala and Meenkotti in Tamil

The Blue-eared Kingfisher is in appearance, size and general colouration very much like the common kingfisher except that the blue upper-parts and the chestnut under-parts are a deeper colour in the blue -eared. The spots on the wing coverts of the blue-eared are a little larger and more conspicuous than in the common kingfisher.

The main difference, however, is that the ear coverts of the common kingfisher are chestnut and in the other, blue as its name implies. The blue-eared seems to be a little more heavily built than the common kingfisher.

The Blue-eared Kingfisher is very rare in Sri Lanka. However it maybe that this bird is quite often mistaken for the common kingfisher and therefore not properly recorded. Only careful observation can help to identify it. It is considered, by some to be a rare migrant. I have, however, seen this bird during the south west monsoon as well.

These may of course be stragglers or loiterers, but apparently this bird prefers the secluded streams in the dry zone jungles and the foothills of Uva. This adds to it being more dificult to find, to distinguish and observe. Here straggler or loiterer refers to migrant birds that do not go back with the other migrants.

Three-toed Kingfisher (Ceyx erithacus)

Three-toed Kingfisher
Three-toed Kingfisher
photo by Honey Badgerr licensed under BY-NC-ND 2.0

It is called the Black-backed Kingfisher and the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, and called Ran Pilihuduwa in Sinhala and Sinna Meenkottu in Tamil.

The Three-toed Kingfisher has a beak and feet, which are a bright coral red, a part of the upper back is sapphire blue, the lower back amethyst and the rump pinkish. The head is rufous pink.

The wings are dark purple, edged in black. The tail is an orange yellow. This kingfisher gets its name as a result of the fact that it does not have a second toe, which leaves it with only three toes as compared to the other kingfishers in Sri Lanka all of which have four.

The Three-toed Kingfisher is a forest loving species and found abundantly along jungle rivers and streams of the low country. It is found in the hills upto about three thousand feet. It flies very fast and adroitly in and out of the trees in the jungle. When in flight the three-toed utters a shrill and piping call.

This kingfisher lives on a diet of small fish, crabs, grasshoppers, frogs etc. It is known to fly down to the ground like a common kingfisher to pick up food, but does not linger on the ground.

Stork-billed Kingfisher (Pelargopis capensis)

Stork-billed Kingfisher
Stork-billed Kingfisher
photo licensed under CC BY 2.0 by Yunus Mony

It is called the Watura Anduwa or Manathudu Maha Pilihuduwa in Sinhala and Meenkotti or Kiuluppan in Tamil

The Stork-billed Kingfisher, a little smaller than a crow, is the largest kingfisher we have in Sri Lanka. It has a geyish-brownish head and a blood red beak. Its breast and collar are a brownish yellow and the upper parts and tail a pale greenish blue. The sexes are alike.

When feeding habits are concerned, it is both a fisher and a predaceous terrestrial feeder. It consumes fish, frogs, crabs, small mammals and birds. It is very agresssive when in search of food. I have seen it attacking a munia and killing it, a part of which was consumed later. It is also known to take eggs and nestlings from nests.

The Stork-billed Kingfisher is found all over the low country but is common in the dry zone areas of the low country. There is a pair on the edge of the marshes near my home in Rajagirya. It is not met with in the hills over 1500 to 2000 feet.

This kingfisher is not a very active bird. In fact it is even less active than the sluggish White-breasted Kingfisher.

It sits on a shady branch for long periods at a time suddenly diving to get its prey.

These birds are found either singly or in pairs. Very often in jungle areas one hears the raucous call of this bird , but it is not seen as often as it is heard. It also has a much lower peer-peer-peer call.

White-breasted Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)

White-breasted Kingfisher
White-breasted Kingfisher
photo licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Nathan Rupert

It is called Laya Sudu Pilihuduwa in Sinhala and Meenkotti or Kikilupai in Tamil

The White-breasted Kingfisher is only a little larger than a mynah, but its large, ponderous beak, which is coral red, gives one the impression that it is a much larger bird.

The bird, as its name implies, has a white bib-like patch on its breast surrounded by chocolate brown plumage.

Its back and wings are a beautiful turquoise blue. It has a large wing patch, which is prominent in flight.

The White-breasted Kingfisher is found all over the island including the hills up to 6000 feet. Birds of this species are highly conscious of their territories and will not allow another bird to come into their territory. This kingfisher is found singly or in pairs.

They are found in gardens, tea estates, open country and such like, but rarely close to expanses of water. It is seen quite often sitting patiently on telephone wires that are strung along most of the major roads in the country. Its tail, which hangs down, is jerked up and down regularly.

The White-breasted Kingfisher has degenerated in its feeding habits and now seldom, if ever, eats fish. It eats small crustacea, frogs, grasshoppers, lizards etc. I have also seen it taking earthworms and also trermites that were emerging from the ground to fly away. This is one of the few kingfishers that alight on the ground regularly to feed.

Black-capped Purple Kingfisher (Halcyon pileata)

Black-capped Purple Kingfisher
Black-capped Purple Kingfisher
photo licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 by JJ Harrison

It is called Hisa Kalu Dam Pilihuduwa in Sinhala, and Meenkotti in Tamil

This kingfisher has a black head, purple upper parts, reddish buff underparts and a white collar. The beak is coral red. Like the white breasted kingfisher, it has whitish wing patches, which are noticeable in flight. It is larger than the white-breasted kingfisher.

The Black-capped Purple Kingfisher is a very rare winter migrant to Sri Lanka. Very rare in that only a few sightings of this bird have been recorded. There have been a number of years when no reports of this bird have been received. It may be that it escapes notice, because during its sojourn here, it is quite often a silent and solitary bird. In any event, I believe that only a few birds come over here each winter.

Some birds have been observed to be very noisy whilst out here but there also reports of others that have been silent during the time that they spend here.

This bird has a high pitched and more raucous call, but it is much less noisy than the white-breasted kingfisher. This is probably because it is not in the island during the breeding season.

Once it arrives here it does not move about much, generally staying in the same area and most times even on the same perch. It is also seen sometimes perched on a post or similar exposed place sunning itself. This bird is not seen vey far from the coast.

Most observations of this kingfisher have been made near brackish water and mangrove swamps. However the exception was the bird that came regularly for a few years to the Uda Walawe National Park.

The feeding habits of this kingfisher is somewhat similar to the White-breasted Kingfisher. It lives on fish, frogs, crabs, small crustacea etc. for which it plunges down obliquely. It is, however, not terrestrial in its feeding habits like the white-breasted kingfisher.

By Jayantha Jayawardene
Daily News

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