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THE PIED KINGFISHER

18 September 2014

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The pied kingfisher Ceryle rudis is one of the three most common kingfishers of the World. It was originally described scientifically as Alcedo rudis by Linnaeus in 1758 based on a specimen from Persia or Egypt. The name rudis is Latin for a foil and refers to the long, pointed bill. A foil is a light, blunt-edged sword.

Pied kingfishers are one of the larger types of kingfisher of southern Africa with a length of 25 cm and a weight of 85 g. This is still quite smaller than the giant kingfisher Megaceryle maximus of southern Africa in which the adult male is up to 46 cm long and weighs 350 g. The giant kingfisher also does not have the white band above the eyes and several black bands on the breast and stomach as does the pied kingfisher male. The term pied describes the white flecks on the flight feathers. The adult female resembles the adult male in size but only has a single broad black band on the breast and not several bands as in the male. The general colour is greyish black, the bill is black and the eyes are dark brown.

Pied kingfishers occur in all of Africa south of the Sahel and through the Middle East as far east as China. However, in Africa it is absent from the Horn of Africa and much of the arid zone of southern Africa although they do penetrate North Africa along the Nile River. It is mostly a resident bird but there are seasonal changes in abundance. The habitat is near any water body with small fish but they avoid well-wooded areas and fast-flowing streams. They occur in pairs or loosely knit family groups and roost together at night. By day a pied kingfisher sits on a high perch near the water or hovers over the water. It is believed to be the largest bird in the world that is capable of sustained hovering in still air. It bathes by rapidly taking several shallow dives into the water from a perch before preening vigorously.

Hunting is done from a prominent perch or by hovering, the latter which allows foraging over open, shallow water where there are no perches. It plunges deep under water to capture fish and can catch two fishes in a single dive. The main diet is small fishes which are battered to death against a perch before being swallowed. It also eats invertebrates such as crabs and shrimp, and terrestrial and aquatic insects.

The pied kingfisher is a monogamous solitary breeder which raises its chicks with up to four male helpers. The number of helpers increases as food resources become more scarce. Nevertheless, loose breeding colonies can be formed. The pairs are territorial and the breeding male helps to feed the female on the nest. The nest is a burrow in a vertical sand bank, sometimes close to the water level. It is excavated by both members of a pair by stabbing at the soil with their bills and takes up to 77 days to complete. The entrance has a diameter of 60 mm and the burrow is 80 to 240 cm long. The nesting chamber is 300 mm long by 200 mm wide by 130 mm high and is not lined. Laying occurs in all months except early winter and one to seven eggs are laid at a rate of one per day. The glossy eggs are broad, oval and immaculately white. Incubation by both members of a pair starts with the first egg to be laid and each egg is incubated in 18 days. The newly hatched chick weighs 8 g and is blind and naked with a pink skin and the lower mandible being longer than the upper one. Growth is rapid and the eyes open after some nine days. The chicks are at risk of predation by ants, snakes and small mammals such as mice and rats or can be killed by flooding at times. Nestlings of pairs without helpers also frequently starve to death.

Reference:

Hockey, P A R, W R J Dean and P G Ryan (Eds) 2005. Roberts – Birds of southern Africa, seventh edition. Cape Town: The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, pp 184 - 185.

Article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

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