While some of Earth’s creatures – the dragonfly, for instance – don’t particularly live up to their names, the kingfisher most certainly does. Indeed, this small but skilled riverbank predator is capable of some of the most spectacular aerial manoeuvres in the animal kingdom.
The largest bird capable of hovering midflight, the kingfisher can boast a number of techniques for locating and intercepting the unsuspecting fish below.
From its vantage point over a river or stream, the bird spies its victim and looks on with interest. From as high as ten metres (32 feet) above the waterway a kingfisher can home in on a single fish and then watch silently overhead by rapidly beating its wings as fast as eight times a second. In order to remain in sync with the fish’s exact co-ordinates the kingfisher must keep its head almost entirely motionless, letting the wings and counterbalancing tail do all the work.
When ready the kingfisher strikes, performing a controlled vertical dive to ensure its dart-like bill is the first thing to enter the water. Though sharp and streamlined, it still generates shockwaves through the water that can startle a fish so speed is of the essence. Indeed, the difference between the kingfisher catching its prize or not can come down to a matter of a mere 50th of a second! If the fish reacts within that time it’s likely to dart out of harm’s way and the hunter will go hungry.
If successful, the kingfisher then swoops off, fish in beak, back to its favourite vantage point – usually a riverbank perch. There it stuns the fish by hitting it against a hard surface before flipping it headfirst into its gullet.