Micronesian Kingfisher

Micronesian Kingfisher

[ Halcyon cinnamomina cinnamomina ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: 6 inches
WINGSPAN: 8 inches
WILD DIET: insects, small reptiles, and fish
ZOO DIET: mice, mealworms, and crickets
DISTRIBUTION: Micronesian kingfishers are extinct in the wild (though reintroduction programs have begun to take place); currently, these birds only live only in zoos
HABITAT: they formerly lived in old-growth and second-growth forests (those that have been cut, then regrown) along rivers; on the coast of Guam, they could be found in stands of palm trees; they also used to perch on telephone lines next to roads; Micronesian kingfishers were once fairly common birds

Surviving Because Zoos Got Involved

Small bird with a big problem
The Micronesian kingfisher has a big name for a small bird. It’s named after a tiny group of islands called Micronesia, which are in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines and north of the equator. Once, the island of Guam was the only home to wild Micronesian kingfishers. But now these birds are found only in zoos and are extinct in the wild. It took forty years to find out how that happened. Slowly, zoos are helping these endangered birds back from the brink of extinction.

A mystery unfolds
Sometime in the late 1940s, just after World War II had ended, the brown tree snake began to be seen in small numbers in forests on the southern end of Guam. No one had ever seen such a snake on the island before. Experts assume that the snakes had arrived as stowaways on military cargo shipments from other islands. Guam had no big native snakes, so this sudden appearance was a surprise. Initially, however, there seemed nothing to worry about. In fact, the brown tree snake was welcomed by some people because it ate rats and mice. Unfortunately, brown tree snakes multiplied in huge numbers because they had no natural predators on the island.

A mystery solved
Eventually, people noticed that there weren’t as many Micronesian kingfishers around as before. Other kinds of birds were disappearing too. No one knew why, and for almost forty years, no one made the connection between fewer birds and more snakes.

Finally, in 1983, a scientist realized that the appearance of brown tree snakes on the island happened just before birds started becoming scarce. It seemed hard to believe that just one kind of animal could have an effect on so many birds. But it was true. Brown tree snakes, following their natural instincts, were eating the food that was available to themkingfishers and kingfisher eggs.

By the time scientists knew the cause, it was too late to save Micronesian kingfishers from extinction in the wild. In the mid-1980s, scientists captured 29 of the remaining kingfishers and put them in zoos. This last-ditch effort came just in time, because by 1988 there were no more wild kingfishers.

From island life to zoo life
Since the last wild Micronesian kingfishers were put in zoos, the captive population has doubled to about 60. If it weren’t for zoos, these birds would be extinct. Such a small population faces an uphill battle for survival. The original goal of producing 200 birds has not been met. One problem is that males and female pairs are often aggressive to each other and to chicks. These days, chicks are frequently raised by zoo staff in hopes of increasing their chances of survival. Right now, there’s a lot of research to improve reproduction in kingfishers. Scientists are trying to understand the birds’ nutritional needs better and to find out the cause of overly aggressive males and females.

All heads and beaks
Although Micronesian kingfishers are about the size of robins, the similarity with the common bird of our lawns and parks ends with size. The kingfisher’s features seem out of proportion for such a small bird—they have very big heads and long beaks.

Male Micronesian kingfishers have mainly cinnamon-brown feathers, with a blue tail and greenish-blue wing patches. Females look similar to the males, but have a pale, almost white, breast.

Communication is the key
They have a very loud call that sounds like a rattle and can be heard from a long distance. They also have a softer, scratchy call that mated pairs use to communicate with each other over short distances.

It takes a team to build a nest
At about two years of age, kingfishers are ready to breed. A mated pair builds a nest in a dead tree, in a hole they dig out themselves. They use their sharp beaks to jab at the treewhile flying!and eventually they form a hole deep enough for a nest. The pair defends the area from other birds with threat displays and if needed, direct attacks. The female lays two or three small white eggs, which she incubates for 21 days. Both parents take care of the chicks, which fledge (are able to fly) at about 35 days of age.

Micronesian kingfishers at Brookfield Zoo
Perching Bird House is home to the zoo’s Micronesian kingfishers, and several are housed off-exhibit. The zoo has approximately seven birds, in a total estimated world zoo population of 80. In 2000, the zoo had a record of six successful hatchlings, bringing our total to 22 successfully hatched chicks. Brookfield Zoo has been part of the Micronesian kingfisher Species Survival Plan (SSP) since 1988. SSPs are cooperative breeding, conservation, and education programs between zoos that have endangered animals.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society