kingfisher

kingfisher, common name for members of the family Alcedinidae, essentially tropical and subtropical land birds, with affinities to trogons and swifts and related to the hornbill. Kingfishers have chunky bodies, short necks and tails, large heads with erectile crests, and strong, long beaks. Most kingfishers are carnivorous. The family is divided into two subfamilies, the fishing and the forest kingfishers, the American species being in the former category. The common eastern American belted kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, perches above the banks of freshwater streams and dives for small fish, crustaceans, reptiles, amphibians, and aquatic insects, returning to its perch to eat. It is 12 to 14 in. (30–35 cm) long, blue-gray above and white beneath; the female has chestnut breast markings. The Texas kingfisher is green above, has no crest, and is smaller (8 in./20 cm). Of the forest kingfishers, the best known is the Australian kookaburra, Dacelo gigas, famous for its laughing cry and valued as a destroyer of harmful snakes and lizards. The related (family Todidae) colorful West Indian tody is insectivorous. The genus Halcyon, of the forest kingfishers, is the largest group, comprising some 33 species. Fishing kingfishers nest in deep burrows dug out along streams. The burrows may extend up to 10 ft (300 cm) vertically, and from five to eight eggs are laid in the chamber rounded out at the end of the tunnel. Both male and female share the incubation duties. Many forest kingfishers nest in the same fashion as the fishing kingfishers, but some, e.g., the kookaburra, never go near the water and nest in trees. Kingfishers are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Coraciiformes, family Alcedinidae.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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