Kingfisher - Brian Rogers Flickr CC
Kingfisher, Brian Rogers, Flickr Creative Commons

If ever there were a bird of contradictions, it’s the Eurasian kingfisher. It lives fast and dies young. The most one is ever likely to see of it is a streak of electric blue passing a few feet above the water. Its call is a short ‘peep’, a warning, perhaps, to get out of its way.

Eurasian kingfishers are hungry birds and require about a kilometre of riverbank to sustain their enormous appetites. They will defend this stretch ferociously, and will drive out their own young once they leave the nest. They rarely live longer than a season and are terribly susceptible to cold winters. In the harsh winter of 1962-3 almost 90% of kingfishers in Britain died.

They might look the very model of pristine beauty, but cleanliness is not their thing. They nest in burrows which they dig into the soft mud of riverbanks. Rather than clean the nest they allow a stinking mess of droppings and fish bones to accumulate in the back of the burrow, which gradually pushes the chicks out towards the water as they mature.

In coat of orange, green, and blue
Now on willow branch I view
Grey waving to the sunny gleam
Kingfishers watch the ripple stream
For little fish that nimble bye
And in the gravel shallows lie.

John Clare, from The Fens

In Greek mythology kingfishers were associated with tranquility. Mark Cocker, in his magnificent book Birds and People, writes of Halcyon who was the daughter of Aeolus keeper of the wind and married Ceyx, one of the sons of the Morning Star. In an act of teenage hubris the lovers styled themselves as Hera and Zeus. Such an attitude annoyed the grumpy old god so much that he killed Ceyx in a thunderstorm at sea. But hubris does not rule out love, and Halcyon was so distraught at her husband’s death that she joined him by drowning. At this, Zeus’s heart must have melted a little for he turned the pair into kingfishers. For some strange reason they wanted to build their nest upon the waters of the sea. Aeolus, now a more watchful father, calmed the wind for them so they could rear their chicks safely. This period became known as the Halcyon Days, a spell of calm in the middle of winter.

Halcyonidae is a genus of tree kingfishers, most of which hunt on land.

still pool
cut by a river


5 thoughts on “Bird of Paradox: the Kingfisher

  1. I read your post to the “peep, peep” of a kingfisher fishing outside my window. I never realised their lives were so short and it has me wondering about the life of our little visitor.


      1. Thank you, that was wonderful and has raised more questions for me to search answers for. I loved the tiny hide, too! We’ve had our visitor (or visitors) for at least 11 years, and it’s high time I found out more about him/her.


  2. They are interesting li’l’ critters. Of course your visitor won’t have been just one. I wonder if they’re related? I like the idea of a dynasty of kingfishers: it goes with their rather splendid appearance and dashing style.


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