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Discover the Majestic Great-billed Kingfisher: Behavior Habitat and Conservation

The Great-billed Kingfisher, scientifically known as Pelargopsis melanorhyncha, is an exotic and rare species of bird that is indigenous to the Southeast Asian region. This magnificent bird is often referred to as the “king of the forest” because of its extraordinary beauty and commanding presence.

The Great-billed Kingfisher is one of the largest kingfishers in the world, and its distinctive appearance and unique calls make it a prized sighting for bird enthusiasts around the world. In this article, we will provide information on the identification, similar species, plumages, and molts of this remarkable bird.




The Great-billed Kingfisher is a large bird, measuring around 35-45 cm in length and weighing approximately 300-350 grams. It has a distinctive long, thick, black bill that provides a striking contrast against its bright red or orange head and blue-green body.

Additionally, its wings are blue-green and its tail is dark blue. When in flight, its rump and the base of its tail can be seen to be white.

The Great-billed Kingfisher’s legs and feet are bright red. Both males and females have similar plumage, although the male’s bill is slightly larger than the female’s.

Similar Species:

The Great-billed Kingfisher can be easily distinguished from other kingfisher species by its size, long black bill, bright red or orange head, and blue-green body. However, its physical features bear some similarities to other kingfisher species.

It is often confused with the Blue-eared Kingfisher and the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher. The former can be distinguished by its blue ear coverts while the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher is easily identified by its smaller size and its prominent white eyebrow.


The Great-billed Kingfisher has three distinct plumages: juvenile, immature, and adult. The juvenile and immature plumages may cause confusion between other kingfisher species.

Juvenile Plumage:

The juvenile plumage is duller and less vibrant than the adult plumage. The head, throat, and upperparts are brown, while the breast and belly are white.

The wings are brown with a blue-green hue, and there is a white patch at the base of the tail. Immature Plumage:

The immature plumage is more vibrant compared to the juvenile plumage.

The head, throat, and upperparts are blue-green, while the breast and belly are white. The wings and tail are slightly brighter blue-green than the juvenile plumage.

Adult Plumage:

The adult plumage is the most striking with a bright red or orange head, blue-green body, and dark blue tail. The bill is also black and thick, with a sheen.

The wings are blue-green with a white patch visible at the base of the primaries.


The Great-billed Kingfisher undergoes two molts each year, which is the pre-breeding and post-breeding molt. The pre-breeding molt occurs during December and February, while the post-breeding molt occurs from May to August.

These molts help the bird maintain its feather condition and retain its beauty.


In summary, the Great-billed Kingfisher is a mesmerizing bird that is unique in appearance and call. It is a rare sight to observe in the wild, but bird enthusiasts continue to search for it.

Its large size, bright colors, and long, black bill make it easy to identify, but it bears some resemblance to other kingfishers. The Great-billed Kingfisher has three plumages: the juvenile, immature, and adult, with the adult plumage being the most striking.

It undergoes two molts each year to maintain its feather condition. The Great-billed Kingfisher’s beauty makes it a precious and unparalleled sight to witness in the wild.

Systematics History

The Great-billed Kingfisher, also known as Pelargopsis melanorhyncha, belongs to the family Alcedinidae. This family of birds includes approximately 90 species of kingfishers that are distributed across the world, except for the Polar Regions.

The species was first described by Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist, in 1788. Since then, numerous taxonomic revisions have been made based on genetic analyses, vocalizations, and morphology.

In this article, we will delve into the historical and current systematics of the Great-billed Kingfisher.

Geographic Variation

The Great-billed Kingfisher is found in Southeast Asia, including India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The species inhabits a range of different forest and wetland habitats, including mangroves, estuaries, and rivers.

The bird’s range encompasses areas of high biodiversity, including areas at risk due to habitat loss. Despite extensive surveys, there is still much to learn about the distribution and behavior of the Great-billed Kingfisher.


The Great-billed Kingfisher has three recognized subspecies based on their geographic distribution and morphological characteristics:

Pelargopsis melanorhyncha melanorhyncha is found in Myanmar, central and north-western Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Pelargopsis melanorhyncha griseiceps occurs in northeast India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and northern and eastern Myanmar.

Pelargopsis melanorhyncha bengalensis is endemic to the Indian peninsula, specifically in the Western Ghats and adjoining regions. These subspecies exhibit slight differences in plumage characteristics, with the P.

m. griseiceps and P.

m. melanorhyncha having darker bills while P.

m. bengalensis has a more sharply-defined brown head.

Genetic studies have suggested that the three subspecies are distinct enough to be regarded as different phylogenetic lineages.

Related Species

Kingfishers are classified into three groups: river kingfishers, forest kingfishers, and dwarf kingfishers. The Great-billed Kingfisher belongs to the third group, which has 10 species in total.

The dwarf kingfishers are known for their small size, vibrant plumage, and high-pitched vocalizations. The other members of the group include the Blue-eared Kingfisher, the Amethyst-headed Kingfisher, and the Blyth’s Kingfisher.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Great-billed Kingfisher is sensitive to habitat disturbances and has experienced population declines due to deforestation and habitat fragmentation. In China, where the Great-billed Kingfisher was once abundant, populations have declined due to the loss of wetland and forest habitats.

However, conservation efforts have been implemented to restore their habitats and promote population growth. In Indonesia, the species is regularly captured and traded for its meat and feathers, which has led to significant population declines.

In Bangladesh, the Great-billed Kingfisher is classified as vulnerable and listed in the IUCN Red List due to the decline of its habitats. Climate change may also impact the distribution of the Great-billed Kingfisher, as it requires stable water conditions and has specific habitat requirements.

In areas where there are extreme water level fluctuations, the bird may struggle to breed successfully. Understanding how climate change and habitat loss interact will be crucial in safeguarding the future of the species.


In summary, the Great-billed Kingfisher’s systematics and distribution have been revised over the years, with three subspecies currently recognized based on morphology, geographic location, and genetic data. The bird is endemic to Southeast Asia, inhabiting a range of different habitats, from rivers to mangroves.

These habitats are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, and the species is now vulnerable in Bangladesh. Conservation efforts, including protecting wetlands and restoring forests, may help mitigate population declines.

Understanding the relationship between habitat changes and climate change will continue to be crucial in preserving this magnificent bird species.


The Great-billed Kingfisher is a bird species that can be found in a variety of habitats across Southeast Asia. Its natural range includes Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and parts of India and Bangladesh.

These birds are known for their spectacular bright colors and their distinctive long, thick, black bills. They are typically found in areas of dense vegetation and have specific habitat requirements, including a source of still or slow-moving water and good quality trees for nesting sites.

The Great-billed Kingfisher can be found in both freshwater and saltwater environments, including mangrove swamps, riverbanks, tidal creeks, and even inundated rice paddies. They require these types of habitats to forage, hunt and breed appropriately.

Their breeding nests are typically situated high above the ground, inside tree cavities. This cavity needs to be large enough to accommodate both male and female during incubation and chicks rearing successfully.

Movements and Migration

The Great-billed Kingfisher is a resident bird and is generally not migratory. These birds may make small movements between breeding and non-breeding habitats, but these are typically within their usual home range, and they don’t engage in large-scale seasonal migration like some other migratory birds.

During the non-breeding season, the birds can be found in slightly different habitats than they would normally occupy during the breeding season. For example, as the river levels rise due to monsoon rains, their home ranges may shift to areas where water is abundant, during the non-breeding season.

These birds can also exhibit some dispersal behaviors, especially during the winter months when juveniles may wander away from their parents and travel to other areas of the land to establish a new home range. These movements are essential for maintaining the genetic diversity of the population and ensuring the success of breeding in new areas.

In some cases, if conditions in their usual breeding area are not favorable, such as extreme weather events or extensive habitat degradation, it is possible that they will move to other areas to breed. In these cases, they may occupy alternate habitats that are suitable for breeding.

However, these movements are not frequent or regular, and the birds prefer to remain loyal to their original breeding and nesting sites.

Conservation Status

The Great-billed Kingfisher is considered to be a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means that conservation concerns for this species are currently low. However, they are vulnerable to habitat degradation and loss due to extensive logging, mining, and other human activities that are impacting the forests and water sources they depend on to survive.

This loss of habitat can impact their reproduction success and stability overall, which may have a significant effect on the future population of the species. Conservation of these birds is paramount to maintain stability, as they play a significant ecological role in controlling insects that overpopulate wetland areas and estuaries.


The Great-billed Kingfisher is a bird that is well-adapted to its environment and has specific habitat requirements essential to its survival. The species is generally sedentary, meaning they do not engage in massive country movements, but they may be forced to shift their home ranges due to unfavorable conditions for breeding.

Because they are sensitive to habitat destruction and seclusion, their persistent presence depends on maintaining the ecological balance of Southeast Asian ecosystems. Conservation efforts must continue to ensure that the protections of their habitats stay in place.

Diet and Foraging

The Great-billed Kingfisher is a carnivorous bird that feeds mainly on fish, crustaceans, and insects. This bird often perches motionless on branches overlooking still or slow-moving water, waiting patiently for prey to pass by.

When prey is sighted, they plunge into the water, seizing it with its beak, and then retreating to a perch to consume the prey. Their long bill and sharp beak make it easy to grasp their prey effectively.


These birds are diurnal, which means they are active during the day. They spend most of their time perched, waiting for prey to appear, and then swoop to seize it in its beak quickly.

Since their prey is aquatic, they are well adapted to deal with submerged obstacles and moving water with ease.


The Great-billed Kingfisher’s diet mainly consists of small fish, including minnows, guppies, and tetras, but they are also known to feed on crustaceans, rodents, reptiles, and other small birds. During drought periods where the river systems dry-up, this bird begins to hunt insects and other invertebrates such as crabs, mollusks, and shrimp, which can be found in the mud.

This bird species has an essential ecological significance in its feeding habits since it assists in regulating the populations of small aquatic creatures. This role means that they play a vital role in maintaining the health of ecosystems.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Great-billed Kingfisher has a high metabolism, which requires it to have an efficient method of regulating its body temperature. Since they are found in areas of high humidity, the bird has developed some physiological adaptations to regulate its body temperature.

The bird has high respiratory and metabolic rates, which help maintain their internal body temperature during their active period. They also have a mechanism for evaporative cooling to maintain their body temperature.

By panting, they expel moisture from their mouth, which evaporates into the air and dissipates heat from their body.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

The Great-billed Kingfisher is an extremely vocal bird whose calls can be heard across the forest. They have a broad and deep repertoire of songs, which can be used in communication with other birds during mating season or social interactions.


The bird has loud, raucous calls that sound like a loud, repeated cackle, with a descending intensity. Although their vocalizations are often heard as harsh and grating, they can also produce a wide range of more soothing sounds, such as rhythmic rolls, whistles, and trills.

They make these sounds frequently throughout the day, using them to advertise their presence in their territory, attract mates, and communicate with other birds.

The variation in vocalization patterns in critical for the social behavior of the birds, and understanding the subtle differences in their calls help biologists to distinguish the individual bird’s age and sex.

It’s also evident in their breeding habits, as males use their vocalization skills to attract a mate during the breeding season. While these calls may appear to be random and disruptive, they are an essential part of the Great-billed Kingfisher’s presence in the ecosystem which help to establish breeding territories and maintain social interactions between individuals.


The Great-billed Kingfisher is a spectacular bird species with a unique behavioral and vocal repertoire. Their foraging habits are finely tuned for capturing fish and crustaceans, with their physiologic adaptations to the high humidity environment they are found in.

Understanding their communication mechanisms and vocal nature becomes an essential tool for biologists studying the species. The vocalization patterns of the birds play a critical role in their behavior and breeding; conserving their habitats, preserving biodiversity, and maintaining ecological balance in Southeast Asia is essential for the future of this magnificent bird species.



The Great-billed Kingfisher is a bird species that mainly moves via flight, and they are well adapted for aerial movements, with broad wings that facilitate smooth gliding. Their long, sturdy bill is a significant aspect of their locomotion, as it assists them to grasp their prey while in flight.

Additionally, they can swim and dive underwater effectively to hunt their prey. When they are swimming, they kick their feet with full force and use their wings to balance their body in the water, which allows them to move quickly and freely.

Self Maintenance

The Great-billed Kingfisher is highly self-sufficient, with a well-organized grooming system that ensures their feathers are in good condition. They regularly preen their feathers and keep them clean by adding oil from the preen gland to their feathers, which makes them more resistant to water.

They also take dust and sand baths that help to remove parasites from their feathers. Bathing regularly is crucial in maintaining optimum feather quality to support their flight needs.

Agonistic Behavior

The Great-billed Kingfisher is territorial and highly aggressive toward rivals who enter their space. They have a range of aggressive display patterns that include tail-up displays, exposing the bright orange-red belly, head-bobbing, and vocalizations.

These displays are in response to an intruder or a rival within the proximity of their territory.

Sexual Behavior

The Great-billed Kingfisher is monogamous and pairs up during the breeding season to form life-long bonds. The birds mate in the early morning hours and remain together throughout the breeding season.

They often participate in courtships to display their intent to mate. The male uses a combination of vocal displays and bright plumage colors to impress females and to claim his territory.

However, both the male and female choose a suitable nesting site together, as a collaborative effort to ensure successful reproduction.


The Great-billed Kingfisher has a breeding season that lasts from January to May, depending on the region. These birds build their nests in natural tree cavities, often in proximity to water.

The nest is usually lined with grass and leaves. The female lays between 2 to 3 eggs, which are typically incubated by both parents for about 22-24 days.

During this period, the parents share incubation duties, but the female plays a more active role in influencing the incubation temperature by regulating her heat output through her pectoral muscles. After hatching, the juvenile birds are cared for by both

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