With their vivid plumage and loud, shrill calls, the kingfisher bird really stands out from the crowd. You can often catch sight of them perched in a tree, barely moving. But upon sighting prey, they spring quickly into action and swoop down to catch it. The amount of variation in the kingfisher family is truly impressive.

There are roughly 90 different species of kingfisher in the world. The majority of species are found in Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America, some species in Europe and North America. They live along banks of rivers and lakes, forest and open woodland, a few species along seashores or in deserts. Most species are sedentary, but about a few species are migratory or partially migratory.

Males and female kingfishers are so similar it is hard to tell them apart. The easiest way, if you can get close enough to see it, is the fact that the lower bill of a female’s beak is orange, as if she’s applied a streak of lipstick. The chicks don’t develop this coloring until they are almost a year old, so youngsters are almost impossible to tell apart.

The ancient Greeks wove many elaborate myths about the kingfisher bird. One of the most well-known is the myth of the “halcyon days,” which refers to the calm period of light weather in the winter solstice. The Greeks believed that the god of winds calmed the weather so that a kingfisher called Halcyon could lay her eggs in peace. The source of this myth is unclear since the kingfisher doesn’t actually breed in the winter.

In Victorian times, many kingfishers were shot and stuffed to put in glass cases, while their feathers were widely used by milliners to adorn hats. The sacred kingfisher, along with other Pacific kingfishers, was venerated by the Polynesians, who believed it had control over the seas and waves.

Kingfishers are solitary birds and have to overcome a natural aversion to one another in order to come together to breed. Their courtship can have an underlying tension as they move awkwardly around one another. Even the male’s mating poise mirrors its aggressive stance.

Kingfishers don’t build nests of sticks or plants. Instead, they nest in burrows that they dig into dirt banks, tree cavities, or old termite mounds. A male and female pair works together to create the burrow, taking turns digging out the soil with their feet. The burrow takes three to seven days to complete. It often slopes upward to avoid flooding and is usually about 1 to 2 meters (3 to 6.5 feet) long, although the record is a 8.5 meters (28 feet) burrow dug by a pair of giant kingfishers. The burrow ends in a nesting chamber that is about 20 to 30 centimeters (8 to 12 inches) wide and 15 to 17 centimeters (6 to 7 inches) high. This is where the eggs are laid and the chicks raised.

Pink and bald, kingfisher chicks are particularly ugly when they hatch. At just one inch-high, they sit bolt upright, like baby pterodactyls, using each other as props to balance against. This interconnection keeps them warm and dry whilst the upright posture helps keep their tiny bodies off the dirt of their nest floor. Unlike many other bird species that maintain a clean nest by removing their chick’s faecal sacks, kingfisher nests can be filthy. This is also the reason why their flight feathers don’t grow until a week before they hatch. But when this blue and orange plumage finally emerges, these ugly ducklings transform into stunning beauties.

Although this bird is omnivorous, they seem to be adapted most of all for hunting and consuming meat. Its favorite hunting strategy is to observe the environment around it from a stalk or tree branch and then swoop down on unsuspecting prey. If the prey is still alive and squirming, then the kingfisher may beat it against the perch to subdue it. With its voracious appetite, the kingfisher has the ability to digest prey even bigger than its entire body. The prey will sometimes stick out of the mouths as part of it is being digested in the stomach.