Search Search

Photo Story

Jewels in the Air: Kingfishers of India

Found in diverse habitats from backyards to deep in the Sundarbans, here are cameos of the twelve species of kingfishers found in India

Text by: Divya Candade

Kingfishers are nature’s ornamented jewels in the air. Electric blues, deep indigo, chestnut reds, vivid fuschia, ruddy pinks, monochrome black-and-white — these are just some of the unexpected flashes one can see in the air.

India’s twelve kingfisher species belong to one of three categories — tree, water or river kingfishers — classified according to their habitat and hunting behaviour. The dining habits of kingfishers might surprise most of us. Tree kingfishers (subfamily Halcyoninae) focus their keen predation on the ground, while the water and river kingfishers prefer a more aquatic diet and habitat. River kingfishers (subfamily Alcedininae) are usually associated with freshwater or forest habitats. Water kingfishers (subfamily Cerylonidae) are specialist fish-eaters who hover and dive into water, fishing with prodigious panache. Some of these bejewelled beauties can be found in our backyards. White-throated, common, and pied kingfishers can often be seen in patches of green or near waterbodies in cities. The Sundarbans is possibly the richest region for kingfisher diversity in the country.

The strident “ki…ki…ki…ki” heard in cities is the calling card of the white-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis). Often a blur of electric-blue green in our backyards, this tree kingfisher is also a common sight in agricultural fields and the wooded countryside. White-throated kingfishers are often found far from waterbodies. Near water, they might dive for fish but are more often seen deftly hunting frogs, rodents, and insects. Versatile predators, these kingfishers have even been observed hunting other birds like tailorbirds and house sparrows. Photos: Saurabh Sawant
Cover photo: The white-throated kingfisher is easily identified by its blue wings, chestnut-brown head, and distinctive white throat. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Sparrow-sized, the common kingfisher or small blue kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) is azure and orange with a distinctive green-blue neck stripe and bright red legs. Found near streams, lakes, ponds, or any waterbody, these river kingfishers hunt small creatures in and around water. They perch quietly watching for prey, darting over the surface of the water in an azure flash. Like shrikes, they deal with troublesome prey by lashing it against a surface. The lower mandible of the beak of the female common kingfisher (right) is orange-red with a black tip, the only indicator that distinguishes her from the male (left).
Photos: Soumyajit Nandy (left), Arijit Mondol (right)

The blue-eared kingfisher (Alcedo meninting) could be easily confused with the common kingfisher, differing mainly in the markings near the ear and in its striking cobalt and cerulean hues. It is found in dense forests in the Himalayan foothills of Northeast India, the Eastern and the Western Ghats.  Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The blue-eared kingfisher (Alcedo meninting) could be easily confused with the common kingfisher, differing mainly in the markings near the ear and in its striking cobalt and cerulean hues. It is found in dense forests in the Himalayan foothills of Northeast India, the Eastern and the Western Ghats.
Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

A larger version of the common Kingfisher, Blyth's kingfisher (Alcedo hercules) is much darker, with no orange behind the ear. This river kingfisher usually perches low near forest streams, either on boulders or low-hanging branches. Rare in India, it is sometimes seen in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Northeast. It is listed as Near Threatened by IUCN.   Photo: Nilkamal Malakar

A larger version of the common Kingfisher, Blyth's kingfisher (Alcedo hercules) is much darker, with no orange behind the ear. This river kingfisher usually perches low near forest streams, either on boulders or low-hanging branches. Rare in India, it is sometimes seen in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Northeast. It is listed as Near Threatened by IUCN.
Photo: Nilkamal Malakar

Kingfishers are often considered synonymous with blue, but this is far from true. With a striking crown of silver feathers, this monochromatic crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris), also known as Himalayan Pied Kingfisher, is the largest of all the kingfishers occurring in India. A water kingfisher, its habitat ranges across the Himalayas, along large mountain rivers and streams with forested patches.  The crested kingfisher looks almost silver from afar. Its large, dishevelled crest (above) distinguishing it from the stark   black-and-white pied kingfisher (seen in the next image). Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Kingfishers are often considered synonymous with blue, but this is far from true. With a striking crown of silver feathers, this monochromatic crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris), also known as Himalayan Pied Kingfisher, is the largest of all the kingfishers occurring in India. A water kingfisher, its habitat ranges across the Himalayas, along large mountain rivers and streams with forested patches.
The crested kingfisher looks almost silver from afar. Its large, dishevelled crest (above) distinguishing it from the stark
black-and-white pied kingfisher (seen in the next image). Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Pied Kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) are water kingfishers, and a delight to watch as they hover and fish over water with great dexterity. They demonstrate remarkable control in the air. After catching their prey, they don’t return to a perch, instead they often consume it as a mid-air in-flight meal. Seen near waterbodies in pairs or groups, these striking birds are also sexually dimorphic (males and females are quite different and can be easily distinguished) unlike the other species found in India. Males characteristically have two black bands across the chest (visible on bird on the left) while the females have one (bird on the right).   Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Pied Kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) are water kingfishers, and a delight to watch as they hover and fish over water with great dexterity. They demonstrate remarkable control in the air. After catching their prey, they don’t return to a perch, instead they often consume it as a mid-air in-flight meal. Seen near waterbodies in pairs or groups, these striking birds are also sexually dimorphic (males and females are quite different and can be easily distinguished) unlike the other species found in India. Males characteristically have two black bands across the chest (visible on bird on the left) while the females have one (bird on the right).
Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The brown-winged kingfisher (Pelargopsis amauroptera) is a threatened bird. Its colours, caramel-orange with dark chocolate wings and a dazzling turquoise patch on the rump, are seen best in flight. This large tree kingfisher is a striking gem that is at home in mangroves, tidal rivers, and creeks of the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh, and other mangrove forests of the south-east Asia. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee (top), Soumyajit Nandy (above) The brown-winged kingfisher (Pelargopsis amauroptera) is a threatened bird. Its colours, caramel-orange with dark chocolate wings and a dazzling turquoise patch on the rump, are seen best in flight. This large tree kingfisher is a striking gem that is at home in mangroves, tidal rivers, and creeks of the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh, and other mangrove forests of the south-east Asia. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee (top), Soumyajit Nandy (above)

The brown-winged kingfisher (Pelargopsis amauroptera) is a threatened bird. Its colours, caramel-orange with dark chocolate wings and a dazzling turquoise patch on the rump, are seen best in flight. This large tree kingfisher is a striking gem that is at home in mangroves, tidal rivers, and creeks of the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh, and other mangrove forests of the south-east Asia. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee (top), Soumyajit Nandy (above)

A lapis-blue bundle of feathers, the black-capped kingfisher (Halcyon pileata) occurs in mangrove forests and river estuaries. Although not a specialist fish eater, these tree kingfishers seem to enjoy their fish and crab. Photo: Arindam Bhattacharya

A lapis-blue bundle of feathers, the black-capped kingfisher (Halcyon pileata) occurs in mangrove forests and river estuaries. Although not a specialist fish eater, these tree kingfishers seem to enjoy their fish and crab. Photo: Arindam Bhattacharya

The ruddy kingfisher (Halcyon coromanda) is also a mangrove and forest-dwelling species found in Northeastern India and the Himalayas. Characterised by varying shades of brown and a typical red bill, these tree kingfishers supplement their diet of fish and crustaceans with frogs and insects. Photo: Saurabh Sawant

The ruddy kingfisher (Halcyon coromanda) is also a mangrove and forest-dwelling species found in Northeastern India and the Himalayas. Characterised by varying shades of brown and a typical red bill, these tree kingfishers supplement their diet of fish and crustaceans with frogs and insects. Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Dubbed “Jewel of the Konkan”, this oriental dwarf kingfisher (Ceyx erithaca) is slight, rainbow-hued and a real visual treat. Found in coastal areas across the country, this shy tree kingfisher is difficult to spot in spite of its bright hues. Also known as the three-toed kingfisher, it favours dense vegetation near streams. Photos: Aseem Kothiala (left), Soumabrata Moulick (right)

The stork-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) is a big tree kingfisher with a scarlet, stork-like bill which gives it its name. Found in wooded habitats near lakes, rivers, forest streams or coasts in almost the whole country, this territorial hunter likes its space, and chases away large predators like eagles. Adults have an olive head with emerald green-blue wings and brown body. Despite being tree kingfishers, these birds are predominantly fish-eaters, though they might also feast on frogs, crabs, rodents, and young birds. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee (left), Arijit Mondal (right)

The stork-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) is a big tree kingfisher with a scarlet, stork-like bill which gives it its name. Found in wooded habitats near lakes, rivers, forest streams or coasts in almost the whole country, this territorial hunter likes its space, and chases away large predators like eagles. Adults have an olive head with emerald green-blue wings and brown body. Despite being tree kingfishers, these birds are predominantly fish-eaters, though they might also feast on frogs, crabs, rodents, and young birds. Photos: Dhritiman Mukherjee (left), Arijit Mondal (right)

(Left) The distinctive collared kingfisher (Todirhamphus chloris) is a coastal tree kingfisher found in mangroves and tidal creeks. Easily identified by their collars and greenish-blue crowns, this kingfisher has a trilling “kek-kek-kek-kek ” call. In the Sundarbans, the rare occurrence of an albino collared kingfisher (right), a shimmering confection of alabaster, is an unexpected and wacky bonus to nature’s jewels in the air. Photos: Soumabrata Moulick (left), Dhritiman Mukherjee (right)

Related Stories for You


RoundGlass Sustain is a media-rich resource on India’s natural world.


Enabling Holistic Wellbeing & Meaningful Living


RoundGlass Sustain is a media-rich resource on India’s natural world.

Enabling Wholistic Wellbeing & Meaningful Living