Why are kingfishers making a comeback?

Female kingfisher with fish in her mouth (by Vikki Muldowney, from BBC Autumnwatch Flickr group) A female with freshly caught fish - her bright lower beak is called "lipstick"

A new wildlife survey shows sightings of these iridescent water birds have trebled in the UK. Why?

Quick. Look. That darting speck of blue-green and rust-red - a kingfisher dipping into a river to catch a minnow. A fleeting flash of colour is all many people will see of a fast-flying kingfisher.

In an annual survey of wildlife spotted around rivers and canals for British Waterways, the number of kingfishers seen by members of the public between March and September has risen 217% to 596, despite fears many of the birds might not survive last winter's icy spell.

British Waterways says this shows the UK's freshwater courses - slow-flowing streams, canals and lakes are the kingfisher's natural habitat - are cleaner and better able to support a thriving ecosystem.

The Answer

Diving kingfisher mirrored on surface
  • Kingfishers need clean water in which to hunt small fish and aquatic insects
  • So they benefit from moves to clean up waterways and create wetlands
  • They reproduce fast

Water quality is a key factor in the kingfisher's survival. It feeds on tadpoles, aquatic insects and small fish such as minnows and sticklebacks - so the water needs to be clean enough for the bird to see its tiny prey as it skims across the surface, or peers from an overhanging branch. Once it dives into the water, a kingfisher is effectively hunting blind, its eyes protected by a third eyelid.

A kingfisher needs to eat its body weight in fish and insects each day. And with chicks to feed, a breeding pair must hunt during every moment of daylight - in a family with seven chicks, the adults must catch about 5,000 fish throughout the summer.

The RSPB estimates there are between 4,800 and 8,000 breeding pairs thinly, but widely, spread across the UK. Their scarcity mean kingfishers are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is illegal to take, kill or injure a kingfisher or its nest, eggs or young, or to intentionally disturb the birds during breeding season.

The kingfisher is not the only British waterbird to suffer from centuries of polluted waterways and wetlands drained for agriculture. Herons, cranes and avocets have also declined.

Find out more

  • BBC Four's four-part series Birds Britannia starts Wednesday at 2100 GMT from 3 November
  • It traces our relationship with garden, sea and countryside birds, and water birds like kingfishers

But the tide is now turning. Efforts are underway to clean up waterways and preserve, or make anew, places for these birds to live. This is in part thanks to special grants being made available, and farmers returning land to its former use.

The RSPB is surprised but heartened by the reported bounce in kingfisher sightings. Conservation spokesman Grahame Madge had feared a population drop of up to a third after last winter, the coldest in 30 years.

"In the hard winter of 1963, there was 85% mortality in some areas, and local extinction in others. Kingfishers are one of the worst affected by cold winters because they feed in shallow waters that ice over, leaving them at risk of starvation."

But they are also well placed to recover after such a catastrophe - they reproduce fast and a breeding pair can raise three broods of chicks in a single season.

"They have also adapted very well to the habitat we provide for them, with the canal network and old gravel pits made over into wetland recreation areas," says Mr Madge. "They even can be seen in the centre of cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Exeter."

Kingfisher tossing a small fish in its beak in Low Barns, County Durham (photo by Hilary Chambers from BBC Autumnwatch Flickr group) A male, as its beak is black

Not only have polluted waters and icy weather done for kingfishers in the past, the little birds have been a victim of their own striking beauty.

Far more colourful than the average British bird, their electric blue plumage was sought after in Victorian times. "Their feathers were used in the production of fishing flies, and egg collecting was a popular pastime," says Mr Madge.

This was also an era when feathers, wings, even whole birds adorned the hats, stoles and dresses of society women, and taxidermists preserved stuffed birds under glass for those keen to bring a little piece of the countryside into their homes.

Not all well-to-do ladies of the time were so keen on these trends. A group in Manchester so objected to this needless slaughter, they took a stand against the plumage trade.

WHO, WHAT, WHY?

Question mark

A part of BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer questions behind the headlines

"They went to church and noted down the names the ladies wearing these hats, and the next day these ladies would receive a hectoring letter pointing out the suffering of the bird that adorned their hat," says environmental historian Dr Rob Lambert, of Nottingham University, in BBC Four's Birds Britannia.

By 1889, they had enough supporters to form their own society, which 15 years later became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

While the British are no less keen on birds today, today's collectors gather sightings and photographs, rather than plumage and stuffed specimens.

Compiled by Megan Lane

Why do twitchers so obsessively try to see so many birds?

Below is a selection of your comments

I have seen them when fishing from the beach near Brighton Marina, they seem to nest in the natural rock groynes that were put in place some 10 years back, surprisingly they go for the white bait. Has anyone ever heard of them hunting in salt water before?

Pablo, Brighton

I was surprised to see a kingfisher fishing in the sea whilst on a recent holiday to Kas, Turkey. There was definitely no freshwater river or lake nearby and it was darting out into the bay where there are abundant small fry. It was a surprise to me as I have always thought of them as freshwater birds, living around rivers or lakes.

Vicky, North Somerset

The increase in small fisheries for pleasure anglers in recent years has provided these beautiful birds with ideal nesting grounds (most dug out lakes have deep soft banks) and an abundant supply of easy to find food - small coarse fish like roach multiply rapidly once stocked in even very small ponds. I have seen kingfishers at three different fisheries I have visited. More fisheries means less distance between water for young kingfishers to risk flying in the search for new nest sites.

Richard Lister, Penryn, England

As a member of the BTO ringing scheme we have had a very good year for kingfishers in our local patch. They do seem to be doing well. People often criticise the EU, but the simple fact is that the focus on water quality and cleanliness was inspired by EU regulations and potential sanctions.

Simon Tucker, Swindon, Wiltshire

We have a kingfisher that visits our garden pond regularly throughout the year. You hear the shrill shriek first as he flies in and then he will perch before diving for a fish. One year we had two viciously fighting each other. It's an amazing sight. In freezing weather they disappear - I guess to the three local rivers in the area.

Maria Ingram, Tonbridge

It is a 'halcyon day' when you see a kingfisher - I am lucky to see them flash by most bright days. I have an empty nest 20ft from my back door - not used at the moment because our kingfishers lost their family the day they fledged last summer and one of the adults died trying to defend their brood against the magpies. But I believe that another kingfisher has joined our lonely one. Is it legal to shoot magpies? I couldn't go through all that again.

Carol, Henley on Thame, Oxon

We saw three kingfishers whilst doing conservation work on the Welland in Stamford, Lincs. Better water quality is a product of better regulation of dischargers and abstractors, better land management, better management of the river channel, and huge investment by the water companies, much of these coordinated by the Environment Agency and partners. Last week we were celebrating the return of otters to our waterways; this week it's kingfishers. A healthy environment benefits everyone.

Paul B, Peterborough, Cambs

Would love to know what locals could do to help them during the winter to help them in hard times especially when the snow is out. Don't think they would appreciate canned pilchards. By far one of the most stunning birds native to these lands, their iridescent plumage is a wonder to behold. I am fortunate enough to see one fairly regularly as I live by a stream and occasionally see some on the Thames. They are so quick you have to get your eye in, to fully appreciate their beauty, rather than a speeding blur of blue.

Mark S, Oxford

I saw a brief flash of a kingfisher whilst walking round Ruislip lido a few months ago. There does also seem to be a lot of herons around - maybe a sign of plenty of fish.

Claire, Ruislip, UK

I saw a kingfisher in the Dominican Republic take a small piece of bread from the dining room, place it in the water in a fresh water lagoon and then perch nearby. When a small fish came up to eat the bread, the kingfisher grabbed him. It's a rare example of a non-primate using a tool.

Pete, Chicago, USA

I see kingfishers regularly on the River Foss in Strensall, just north of York. There are at least two pairs on the section of river close to my house and they are a magnificent sight as they fly low over the water, though you only see them for a very short time.

Tony Fisher, York

I work as head gardener on a 32-acre estate with two lakes and we have two nesting pairs of kingfishers. Their non-stop up and down, it's good to see.

Brian Fairs, Dorking, Surrey

Just yesterday I caught the flash of blue green in the willows overlooking an old papermill, the water runs very clearly except when the 4xwheel townfolk drive through the ford just for the sake of right of way. Further through the fields by a river, I also caught sight of an impressive heron and his mate and they were watching me and the dogs pass on the other side of the river. Fortunately the farmers/landowners in our village are pro-environment as a result there is lush greenery and wildlife.

Chez, Nr Ware, Herts

As a regular canal and river kayaker this years has definitely been a great year for kingfisher sightings. Long may it continue.

Bob Blainey, Weston-super-Mare, UK

I fish every weekend and have seen so many kingfishers this year compared to last, and on ponds and waterways that you wouldn't normally expect. I've also seen a lot of pairs and noticed that they don't seem to be as shy as in the past.

Sean, Stockport, England

As I regularly go fishing I see these birds a lot. This season alone I have managed to get very close views as they sit in the trees at my peg. Shame I didn't have a camera. I have even seen them surprisingly close to the city centre.

Pike , York

My garden backs on to the River Lark and I see kingfishers fairly regularly. I was down my garden a few months ago and one darted right across in front of me, the blue flash made me jump out of my skin as I was handling some cabling at the time. I do hope they continue to thrive, it would be a sad day if we lose them.

Phil Fryer, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

I live in suburbia - Finchley, North London - and am always fascinated seeing the bright flashes of fast-moving kingfishers around Dollis Brook that runs near my house. Not seen many in the last couple of years, but hopefully they are increasing in numbers.

Peter Galbavy, London, UK

I saw a Kingfisher on the Tiverton Canal. First time I've ever seen one and I was very pleased.

Laura, Devon

We are lucky enough to spend a lot of time on the Thames, training for the Devizes to Westminster canoe race or just having "river time" sitting by the river with my 4 year old daughter. I never tire of seeing this beautiful bird and hope the numbers keep growing. A "kingfisher day" is always a good day.

Andrew Roberts, Thames Ditton

I work in an industrial estate in Wimbledon that backs on to the River Wandle. I have been seeing kingfishers all summer - a fantastic sight and always a surprising contrast with the shopping trolleys and other waste in the canal at present.

Neil Wilkinson, London

We were on a short break with friends on the Shropshire Union Canal after a particularly bad period in our lives (loved ones and a beloved dog dying). I was up early and the canal was glowing with sunrise. I walked through the barge and as I passed a large window, a kingfisher flew past - it seemed to be flying slowly so I could see it. Its beautiful blue was highlighted by the rays of the sun. It then landed on the tiller and remained there for a minute or so. That is why we birders seek out birds. My grief disappeared for a few moments.

Sue Ross, Swansea, West Glam

Not sure about kingfishers, but in my unscientific survey, I've noticed far more herons this year than ever before.

Michael Eve, Rowlands Gill, Tyne and Wear

We were amazed to see a kingfisher whilst staying in Twickenham last week. I can't remember the last one I saw.

Dane, Nottingham

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