Kingfisher, an extensive family of birds, with a lengthened, generally straight bill, broad at the base with acute tip, rounded wings, short tail, strong and short tarsi. The family includes, according to Gray, the subfamilies buc-conince or puff birds of tropical America; the galbulince or jacamars, also South American, already treated; halcyonince or kinghunters, belonging to the old world; and the alcedinince or kingfishers, distributed the world over. The subfamily of kingfishers contains the genera alcedo (Linn.), alcyone (Swains.), and ceryle (Boie), with a long, straight, and slender bill, with the culmen sloping to the acute tip. In alcedo the wings are short, with the first quill nearly as long as the second and third, which are equal and longest; tail short, broad, and rounded; tarsi very short and robust; toes unequal, the middle one longest, and the inner one short; the claws short and curved. The species of this genus are found in most parts of the old world, where they frequent freshwater rivers and lakes, perching solitary on an overhanging branch, or skimming near the surface in pursuit of their fish prey; they sometimes plunge from a branch, and at others flutter over a spot, suddenly pouncing on a fish as it rises to the surface; they catch the fish with the bill, and swallow it whole, head foremost, unless it be too large, in which case they beat it to pieces and swallow the separate fragments.
The nest is made at the end of a long gallery which they excavate in the sandy or clayey banks of rivers by their bill and feet, and the eggs, six or seven in number, are placed on ejected pellets of fish bones. The common kingfisher of Europe (A. ispida, Linn.) is about 7 in. long, with a long sharp bill, stout body, and short wings; it possesses many of the brilliant colors of tropical birds, the upper back being dark green, the lower back and rump bright blue; the upper part of the head, wing coverts, and stripe on each side of neck, green with numerous light blue spots; throat and neck stripe yellowish white, and lower parts pale chestnut. The eggs are pinkish white, and are placed in holes in river banks. The bird is the halcyon of the ancients, from whose period and habits of incubation arose the term "halcyon days."
European Kingfisher (Alcedo ispida).
Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle aleyon).
Some of the older writers even attributed to the kingfisher the power of arresting the violence of the waves. In some parts of Europe it is still believed that the breast of a kingfisher suspended by the bill will always be turned to the north, that when accurately balanced the bill will point in the direction of the wind even within doors, and that its head and feathers protect against witches and storms at sea, and are a sure means of securing the affections of a loved object. The flight is direct and rapid, and its note sharp and piercing and emitted on the wing. The genus alcyone (Swains.) has no inner toe; its few species are found in Australia and the Indian archipelago; their habits arc the same as in the preceding. - The common kingfisher of this country belongs to the genus ceryle (Boie); this comprises several species, many of which are found in Africa and India; the tail is long and rounded, the tarsi uncommonly short and stout, and the inner toe much longer than the hinder. The belted kingfisher (C. aleyon, Boie) is found throughout North America; the length is about 13 in. and the extent of wings 22; the head has a long crest; the color is blue above, without metallic lustre; a concealed band across the back of the head, a spot before the eye, and the lower parts white; a band across the breast, and the sides under the wings, blue like the back; primaries white on the basal half; tail transversely banded and spotted with white.
In the young birds there is a light chestnut band on the breast below the blue one, which last is more or less tinged with chestnut. Specimens from the Pacific coast are considerably the largest. It is a constant resident in the southern states; its flight is rapid, and it often suddenly stops like a sparrow hawk and hovers over the water, dashing headlong after its prey, which it carries to the nearest stump or tree and swallows instantly. It follows the course of rivers even to the cascades of their sources, and its presence near a stream is good evidence to the angler that fish are there abundant; it is fond of resorting to mill ponds, where the stillness of the water enables it easily to detect its prey. Its notes are very sharp, rapid, and rattling. The nests are made in holes dug to the horizontal depth of from 4 to 6 ft. in a bank, the entrance being just large enough to admit a bird, and the end rounded like an oven; the eggs are generally six, and pure white, and incubation lasts about 16 days, being performed by both parents; the eggs are considered good eating, though the flesh of the bird is fishy and tough.
According to Audubon, this bird occasionally plunges into the sea after small fry. - The subfamily of lialcyonince or kinghunters have the aspect and general habits of kingfishers, from which they differ principally in the broader and stouter bill. The genus dacelo (Leach) is found in Australia and Papua; the species are not shy, and one, the D. gigas (Bodd.), is 18 in. long; they go into the woods, and feed indiscriminately on any animals of suitable size, whether quadruped, bird, reptile, fish, insect, or crustacean; the colors are handsome, and the flight quick and noiseless; their powerful bills render them formidable, and they can successfully resist the smaller birds of prey; some of the species have a peculiar screaming laugh at sunrise and sunset, which has caused the name of "laughing jackass" to be given to them in Australia. The genus halcyon (Swains.), with about 50 species, inhabits Africa, Australia, India and its archipelago, and the South sea islands; some of these birds are very handsome, green and blue predominating; they build their nest in the hollow trunks of trees.