Colours of Wildlife: Malachite Kingfisher

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Malachite Kingfisher

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Malachite Kingfisher by Willem

Here you have what is justifiably called a 'living jewel': a Malachite Kingfisher, Alcedo cristata. It is named for the decorative, green to bluish green mineral, Malachite. Its scientific name means 'crested kingfisher'. The crest isn't seen often, but it raises it when it is alerted or disturbed. The crest spreads out sideways as much as upwards. Often when they're caught in bird ringing operations and held in the hand, they'll spread their crests while stiffly turning their heads from side to side, holding their bills slightly open – we don't know why they do this. Malachite kingfishers are tiny, reaching 13 cm/5" in total length. They're quite abundant in sub-Saharan Africa, only being absent from very dry and waterless regions. Very similar and closely related kingfisher species occur in equatorial Africa and on the island of Madagascar. Despite being very similar, this species isn't very closely related to the Pygmy Kingfisher.

True Fisherbirds

Unlike the Woodland Kingfishers, which actually eat mainly insects and small terrestrial animals, the malachite kingfisher does truly catch fish. It is the second-commonest 'fishing' kingfisher species found in South Africa, after the Pied Kingfisher. Despite their abundance, malachites are not seen very often, because they are so small, and also because they usually perch well-concealed amidst vegetation. They like to sit not very high above the water surface, on a twig or on a grass or reed stem. They bob their heads up and down a lot, and this little movement is often what brings them to the birdwatcher's attention. They are also easy to spot when they fly over the water with a whirring of wings, or when they betray their location with their high, twittering calls.

Malachite kingfishers are hunters of small fish and tadpoles, but also catch aquatic insects and invertebrates, including the beetles and water boatmen that skim around on the water surface. They've also been noted as catching dragonflies in flight. They sometimes opportunistically catch insects that are not particularly aquatic. Although they're mainly found inland around bodies of fresh water, they sometimes fish on the coast, perching on rocks.

A favourite prey of theirs are the tiny killifishes, which are 'annual' fishes. These remarkable fishes complete their entire lifespan and reproductive cycle within a few months. They live in temporary inland ponds and pools which only form during the rainy season. They hatch from eggs left in the mud, as soon as water covers it; they rapidly grow to adulthood, spawn, and die as the water evaporates at the end of the season. But the eggs they leave in the mud are hardy and resistant to desiccation and will yield the next generation come the next season's rains. It's a hard life, and along the way they need to weather a kingfisher gauntlet as well! But despite that, these tough little fishes are still quite abundant.

Rapid Breeders

Wetlands in Africa can be very productive. In prime habitat, a pair of malachite kingfishers can be found for, more or less, every 250 m/yards of river or lake edge. A pair will excavate a long nest tunnel, typically in a steep riverbank with firm soil. The female lays a clutch of 3-6 eggs in the nesting chamber at the end of the tunnel. The little kingfisher chicks hatch and both parents bring them tiny fishes as food. The nest rapidly becomes almost intolerably foul with rotting bits of fish, the droppings of the chicks, and the mites and other invertebrates that infest the mess. The chicks somehow seem to tolerate this, but their parents have to wash themselves off by plunging into the water after each feeding visit. But the little chicks grow quickly and soon leave the festering hole. Juvenile malachite kingfishers are somewhat duller than the adults, and have black rather than red bills.

Amazingly, a single pair of malachite kingfishers can successfully raise three or four broods of chicks in a single season! Furthermore, they can already breed at the age of six months. Adults are quite mobile, wandering around to find suitable habitat with water and vegetation to perch in. They're harmed in some places by water pollution and pesticide use, and by destruction of vegetation at the waterside, but overall the species is abundant, widespread and not endangered.

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