We were visiting a series of small pans near the Zambezi River to the east of Katima Mulilo in northern Namibia when we came upon a wooden moroko pulled up on the bank of one of the water-filled pan. Not unusual perhaps, but perched on this mokoro were no less than eight Pied kingfishers, four of them with fish clamped in their bills! Usually found in pairs, or in small groups, this is the first time we had seen so many of these birds sharing the same perch and it was a splendid sight.
The Pied kingfisher is one of the most common of the kingfishers in southern Africa, and is, in fact, one of the most common kingfishers in the world, being found throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt, the middle east, and southern Asia. In southern Africa it is a familiar sight at many of the rivers, lakes, dams and other waterways where small fish are to be found. It is the only purely black and white kingfisher in the region and is quite conspicuous while perched close to the water.
A medium sized bird with a length of about 28 cm, the Pied kingfisher is quite distinctive with its black-and-white colours; the under parts are white and although the sexes are similar in both size and plumage, the male has two breast bands and the female has just one. Both sexes have dark brown eyes and their legs and feet are black.
Although the Pied kingfisher sometimes hunts from a conveniently situated perch, it also flies well away from the shore and hunts while hovering over the surface of the water, its body almost vertical and its bill pointing downwards as it scans the water for fish. With a likely morsel spotted, the bird dives quickly, usually hitting the water with a splash before emerging with its prey clasped firmly in its bill. It returns to its perch and beats its prey on a convenient branch or other hard surface before swallowing it. Although it feeds mainly on small fish, of just one or two grams in weight, it will also feed on insects such as dragonflies and crickets, and on small crabs.
The Pied kingfishers are monogamous and nest in a burrow that is usually between one and two metres in length dug into a vertical sandbank. The female lays a clutch of 4 to 6 white eggs that hatch after an incubation period of about 18 days.
The scientific binomial of the Pied kingfisher is Ceryle rudis; Ceryle from the Greek for a kingfisher and rudis from the Latin for the wooden sword used by gladiators in training – presumably a reference to the birds sword-like bill. Thus a kingfisher armed with a sword, which is quite appropriate really.