kingfisher willows art

Willows Art

Kingfishers are one of England’s most colourful birds, known for their gorgeous blue and orange plumage. They live by rivers and streams, sitting in wait for their next catch. But it’s rare to see them. Not due to endangered status, but more that they are so elusive, it’s rare for anyone to see one. They are protected under the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, so report concerns to your local police force or CrimeStoppers (anonymous).

Kingfishers are easy to recognise with their mix of bright blue backs and copper-orange breasts (males have black bills, females have orange-red patches on their bills). They hunt for fish from perches, then fly across the water to make their catch, the ‘shimmer’ on their feathers reflecting light. These amazing birds have a third eyelid to let them close when hunting underwater, and they use their fused toes to grip prey, before heading back for lunch!

Kingfishers live all over England, and particularly like the East of England  and home counties, presumably due to milder weather (it’s hard to see fish when the river has a strong current from storms). Obviously if rivers freeze over or there is local water pollution, they have to move on to survive. In a pinch, they will eat tadpoles and freshwater insects and shrimps (it’s rare for them to visit gardens, unless you have a big outdoor space with a stream running through!)

kingfishers don’t build conventional nests

Kingfishers have to eat their own body weight in fish each day to survive, and when chicks come along, they have to hunt for even more food. Unlike most birds that make nests, kingfishers makes burrows (or takes over old ones), with mum and dad taking shifts to build a unique tunnel which has a special angle, so eggs don’t roll into the river or stream. One bird-watcher found kingfishers making a tunnel that ‘smelled of rotting rish and coughed-up pellets’ and remarked ‘even the kingfishers seemed to be mildly digusted by the situation’, with each parent washing after leaving!

Young kingfishers fledge after around 3 weeks, with parents encouraging them to be independent within days. A lot die early due to not simply knowing how to live the quite tough life of being a kingfisher. Paul Stancliffe (from British Trust for Ornithology) calls these birds ‘the rock stars of the river’ as most are destined to ‘live fast and die young’. Some can survive for a few years, but most don’t.

how we can help beautiful kingfishers

Because kingfishers don’t have much to do with humans, you would think that they were okay. But nature is nature, and in the wild they are risk from various mammals and birds of prey, as well as cats if there are any nearby.

The best way we can help is simply to keep our rivers and streams clean. This not only helps them but the fish and other creatures that live in them. So take your litter home with you, use a Monomaster to avoid leaving fishing tackle near riverbanks, and use a funnel to change oil/antifreeeze on boats.

books to learn more about kingfishers

Kingfisher: Encounters in the Wild is by a renowned Scottish nature writer who relives memorable encounters with one of our best-loved birds, offering insights into their extraordinary lives. These beautiful birds are difficult to spot as they hide near rivers, using their excellent fishing skills to grab a tasty lunch.

Colour is to kingfishers, is what slipperiness is to eels. The particular quality of their plumage that startles, is nothing more than an ingenious arrangement of shades of blue, all but one of which are unexceptional in their own right. But which are downright sensational when they are so inspirationally juxtaposed with each other. If there is anything more flamboyantly haute couture in all the fauna of the land, I have not seen it.

Call of the Kingfisher is an enchanting book by a composer and wildlife recordist, who celebrates all the wild things that live on a short stretch of Northamptonshire’s River Nene, especially kingfishers (with bonus birdsong recordings). Don’t play birdsong near birds, it can make them vulnerable to predators. 

For 40 years, the author has walked beside the River Nene at Oundle (a lovely but little-known part of England where bandleader Glenn Miller performed his final concert, before going missing). For a year, Nick gave the waterway his time, so the more he saw resident kingfishers and heard their high whistling calls.

Also exploring the history and landscape (from Roman and Bronze Age sites to watermills and centuries-old stone churches), he also watches forest dawns and dusks, listening to precious songs of nightingales. Alongside the background tapestry of greens and browns, sights and sounds – all shot through with blue and orange threads of a kingfisher’s glowing feathers.

Nick Penny took an arts degree at Oxford University, then set up a workshop making musical instrument, and writes and plays the Paraguayan harp. After moving to rural Northamptonshire 40 years ago, he became fascinated by birdsong in his local woods, and began to use the sounds in his own music. He is an inspiring speaker on wildlife and birdsong.

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