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Coraciiformes Classification Essay

Why Another Checklist?

You can get to the checklist using the menu on the right.

This project started in 2006 as a way to try to explain to some friends some of the new ideas that might lead to rather drastic changes in bird checklists. The initial intent was to focus on the Metaves hypothesis and potential changes in the Emberizidae (sensu lato, this name is usually used, although Icteridae has priority). The treatment of both has changed substantially since then, with Metaves being replaced by its remnant, Columbea, and the Icteroidae undergoing drastic changes.

As I started to write it up, I noticed more and more changes both being made to bird checklists and in the literature. The project grew into a longish essay I put on the web in 2007. However, the more I worked on it, the more there was to do! I found that a family-level listing wasn't enough. The composition of the families was changing too. I needed to go down to the generic or even species level. To properly track the changes, I needed my own world checklist.

Unlike other checklists, this one is based on genetic studies to the highest degree possible. With one or two exceptions, it relies on published studies (including those available “ahead of print”). The strong focus on genetics means that previous morphological studies are often treated as second-class citizens. This is especially true when they aren't consistent with the genetic data, even if the genetic data is somewhat soft. Nonetheless, I rely on such analyses to fill in the gaps left by the genetic data.

My approach contrasts with most checklist committees. They usually put substantial weight on traditional classifications, and try to avoid speculation, even when its clear that the traditional classification is wrong. In particular, they try to avoid making erroneous changes, and put a premium on stability.

This checklist has a different purpose. It exists to speculate, to map out potential changes in the taxonomy. The price of focusing on speculation is to give up stability. I try to avoid erroneously maintaining the status quo, and try to keep abreast of the latest findings, even if incomplete.

The truth is that much of the genetic analysis is incomplete. It is still the case that only part of the avian tree has reliable results. For the rest, some is still relatively uninvestigated, some has results that are not clear cut or even contradictory, and some studies are not well executed. In some cases I've taken my best guess based on available data, sometimes speculating well beyond the genetic data.

The instability of the TiF worldlist may make it unsuitable for everyday use, although it should serve the useful function of highlighting potential changes regardless of your preferred checklist. Unlike a printed checklist, the TiF web list can be easily updated as new information, corrections, and better interpretations come to my attention. The “What's New” button at the top will show you the latest changes.

Previously, only the combination of Sibley and Monroe (1990) and Sibley and Ahlquist (1990) or its precursor in the Auk (Sibley, Ahlquist, and Monroe, 1988) had attempted anything of this sort (the famous “tapestry”). From the beginning, the TiF list has used an explicit family-level tree. That has now been extended to a genus-level tree for most families. In some cases it has been pushed to the species level, and in a very few cases, to subspecies.

The Checklist

The TiF checklist currently groups the birds in 46 Orders and 248 families. Both a order-level and family-level trees are now available in pdf format. Due to its length, the family tree is split into 5 parts.

46 Orders248 Families

The checklist can be viewed in two ways. You can either view the annotated checklist on these web pages or download a list. The downloadable lists are Excel csv files that can be imported into spreadsheets such as Excel, or easily manipulated by programs such as perl. Four lists are available in csv format. The ABA list includes only ABA recognized species, but in TiF order, with TiF families. The South American list uses TiF species rather than SACC species.

The version number at the top of the page refers to the csv files. Note that the web pages are updated more frequently than the spreadsheets.

Peter Kovalik has created an Excel spreadsheet that compares a variety of world lists: IOC 5.3, Howard & Moore 4, Clements 6.9, HBW, HBW/BirdLife vol. 1 (ICBW), Peters, TiF 3.04, BirdLife 7, Sibley & Monroe 1993, and IOC 5.1-5.2.

Richard Jackson has provided a TiF-based spreadsheet cross-referenced to the HBW, Clements, and ICBW lists.

Further, Stephen Nawrocki has provided an excel version of the worldlist, version 2.79.

Viewing the Checklist

You can view an annotated version by clicking on the list of bird orders on the right, or by using the family index, or genus index, or by clicking on the family names in the various tree view pages. In the annotated list, recently extinct species and species whose taxonomic placement is particularly uncertain are color-coded. In some cases, superfamilies, subfamilies, tribes, and other groups have been added to help show how the birds are related.

Influences and Resources

The ultimate influences on the TiF list are Charles Sibley, Jon Ahlquist, and Burt Monroe. The Sibley-Monore (1993) checklist and the two earlier volumes by Sibley and Monroe (1990) and Sibley and Ahlquist (1990) sparked my interest in avian taxonomy. In some sense, the TiF list is an attempt to redo their tapestry based on modern genetic studies.

The TiF list was originally based on the 3rd edition Howard and Moore checklist, but the species list has been modified based on decisions by recognized authorities and publications in ornithological journals. The overall species list is now most similar to the IOC list. The IOC list has the advantage of quickly adopting recent changes in taxonomy. Now that they are expanding it to include subspecies and the other amenities of the Howard and Moore list, it has become my base reference. I have also made heavy use of the SACC and HBW projects. The SACC is to be particularly commended for their open revision process, which provides unparalleled information about why particular taxonomic changes were made.

There are numerous other checklists available on the web. For ABA listers, the venerable Clements checklist is now available on the web, and is updated approximately annually. Those focusing on conservation issues may prefer the Bird Life International Checklist, also updated annually, and now being integrated with a new HBW checklist.

Besides the world checklists, there are various other taxonomic resources available on the web. BirdForum's Bird Taxonomy and Nomenclature Forum discusses the latest taxonomic issues. Those interested in tracking lumps, splits, and other changes in bird taxonomy should take a look at Richard Klim's Holarctic Checklist. Although he only considers holarctic species, he does a great job of tracking all the changes. Don Roberson's Bird Families of the World has long followed the ongoing shake-up in bird families.

I've found Alan Peterson's Zoonomen particularly helpful for sorting out the complexities of scientific names. the late John Penhallurick's World Bird Info also has a wealth of information about the history of scientific names, plus information on range, habitat, and sometimes photos. Finally, the Internet Bird Collection includes some of the text from HBW together with a wealth of photos and videos.


I thank Geir Sverre Andersen, Manual Andrés-Moreno, Gustav Asplund, Norbert Bahr, Keith Bennett, David Cole, John Croxall, Thomas Donegan, Stefan Ericsson, Liam Hughes, Richard Jackson, James A. Jobling, Colin Jones, Leo Joseph, Max Kirsch, Peter Kovalik, Thomas Kuenzel, Marek Kuziemko, Wich'yanan Limparungpatthanakij, Lothar Lorenz, Pietro Martini, Heidi Michelle, D. James Mountjoy, Stephen P. Nawrocki, Jonas Nordin, †John Penhallurick, Daniel Philippe, Stephan Pickering, Steve Preddy, Sandy Rae, Michael Ramsey, Laurent Raty, Thomas S. Schulenberg, Nathan Terzaghi, Ben Wielstra, Victor S. Zhukov, and Kristof Zyskowski for their helpful comments and suggestions.

Next Page

For other uses, see Kingfisher (disambiguation).

Kingfishers or Alcedinidae are a family of small to medium-sized, brightly colored birds in the order Coraciiformes. They have a cosmopolitan distribution, with most species found outside the Americas. The family contains 114 species and is divided into three subfamilies and 19 genera. All kingfishers have large heads, long, sharp, pointed bills, short legs, and stubby tails. Most species have bright plumage with only small differences between the sexes. Most species are tropical in distribution, and a slight majority are found only in forests. They consume a wide range of prey usually caught by swooping down from a perch. While kingfishers are usually thought to live near rivers and eat fish, many species live away from water and eat small invertebrates. Like other members of their order, they nest in cavities, usually tunnels dug into the natural or artificial banks in the ground. Some kingfishers nest in arboreal termite nests. A few species, principally insular forms, are threatened with extinction. In Britain, the word "kingfisher" normally refers to the common kingfisher.

Taxonomy, systematics and evolution[edit]

The kingfishers family Alcedinidae is in the order Coraciiformes, which also includes the motmots, bee-eaters, todies, rollers and ground-rollers.[2] The name of the family was introduced (as Alcedia) by the French polymathConstantine Samuel Rafinesque in 1815.[3] It is divided into three subfamilies, the tree kingfishers (Halcyoninae), the river kingfishers (Alcedininae) and the water kingfishers (Cerylinae).[2] The name Daceloninae is sometimes used for the tree kingfisher subfamily but it was introduced by Charles Lucien Bonaparte in 1841 while Halcyoninae introduced by Nicholas Aylward Vigors in 1825 is earlier and has priority. A few taxonomists elevate the three subfamilies to family status.[6][7] In spite of the word "kingfisher" in their English vernacular names, many of these birds are not specialist fish-eaters; none of the species in Halcyoninae are.

The centre of kingfisher diversity is the Australasian region, but the group is not thought to have originated there. Instead, they originated in the Indomalayan region around 27 million years ago and invaded the Australasian region a number of times.[9]Fossil kingfishers have been described from Lower Eocene rocks in Wyoming and Middle Eocene rocks in Germany, around 30–40 million years ago. More recent fossil kingfishers have been described in the Miocene rocks of Australia (5–25 million years old). Several fossil birds have been erroneously ascribed to the kingfishers, including Halcyornis, from the Lower Eocene rocks in Kent, which has also been considered a gull, but is now thought to have been a member of an extinct family.[10]

Amongst the three subfamilies, the Alcedininae are basal to the other two subfamilies. The few species found in the Americas, all from the subfamily Cerylinae, suggest that the sparse representation in the Western Hemisphere resulted from just two original colonising events. The subfamily is a comparatively recent split from the Halcyoninae, diversifying in the Old World as recently as the Miocene or Pliocene.[1]


The smallest species of kingfisher is the African dwarf kingfisher (Ispidina lecontei), which averages 10 cm (3.9 in) in length and between 9 and 12 g (0.32 and 0.42 oz) in weight. The largest kingfisher in Africa is the giant kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima), which is 42 to 46 cm (17 to 18 in) in length and 255–426 g (9.0–15.0 oz) in weight. The familiar Australian kingfisher known as the laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) is the heaviest species with females reaching nearly 500 grams (18 oz) in weight.

The plumage of most kingfishers is bright, with green and blue being the most common colours. The brightness of the colours is neither the product of iridescence (except in the American kingfishers) or pigments, but is instead caused by the structure of the feathers, which causes scattering of blue light (the Tyndall effect).[14] In most species, no overt differences between the sexes exist; when differences occur, they are quite small (less than 10%).[10]

The kingfishers have long, dagger-like bills. The bill is usually longer and more compressed in species that hunt fish, and shorter and more broad in species that hunt prey off the ground. The largest and most atypical bill is that of the shovel-billed kookaburra, which is used to dig through the forest floor in search of prey. They generally have short legs, although species that feed on the ground have longer tarsi. Most species have four toes, three of which are forward-pointing.

The irises of most species are dark brown. The kingfishers have excellent vision; they are capable of binocular vision and are thought in particular to have good colour vision. They have restricted movement of their eyes within the eye sockets, instead using head movements to track prey. In addition, they are capable of compensating for the refraction of water and reflection when hunting prey underwater, and are able to judge depth under water accurately. They also have nictitating membranes that cover the eyes to protect them when they hit the water; the pied kingfisher has a bony plate which slides across the eye when it hits the water.[10]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

See also: List of Coraciiformes by population

The kingfishers have a cosmopolitan distribution, occurring throughout the world's tropical and temperate regions. They are absent from the polar regions and some of the world's driest deserts. A number of species have reached islands groups, particularly those in the south and east Pacific Ocean. The Old World tropics and Australasia are the core areas for this group. Europe and North America north of Mexico are very poorly represented, with only one common kingfisher (common kingfisher and belted kingfisher, respectively), and a couple of uncommon or very local species each: (ringed kingfisher and green kingfisher in the southwestern United States, pied kingfisher and white-throated kingfisher in southeastern Europe). The six species occurring in the Americas are four closely related green kingfishers in the genus Chloroceryle and two large crested kingfishers in the genus Megaceryle. Even tropical South America has only five species plus the wintering belted kingfisher. In comparison, the African country of the Gambia has eight resident species in its 120-by-20-mile (193 by 32 km) area.[10]

Individual species may have massive ranges, like the common kingfisher, which ranges from Ireland across Europe, North Africa, and Asia as far as the Solomon Islands in Australasia, or the pied kingfisher, which has a widespread distribution across Africa and Asia. Other species have much smaller ranges, particularly insular species which are endemic to single small islands. The Kofiau paradise kingfisher is restricted to the island of Kofiau off New Guinea.[10]

Kingfishers occupy a wide range of habitats. While they are often associated with rivers and lakes, over half the world's species are found in forests and forested streams. They also occupy a wide range of other habitats. The red-backed kingfisher of Australia lives in the driest deserts, although kingfishers are absent from other dry deserts like the Sahara. Other species live high in mountains, or in open woodland, and a number of species live on tropical coral atolls. Numerous species have adapted to human-modified habitats, particularly those adapted to woodlands, and may be found in cultivated and agricultural areas, as well as parks and gardens in towns and cities.[10]

Behaviour and ecology[edit]

Diet and feeding[edit]

Kingfishers feed on a wide variety of prey. They are most famous for hunting and eating fish, and some species do specialise in catching fish, but other species take crustaceans, frogs and other amphibians, annelid worms, molluscs, insects, spiders, centipedes, reptiles (including snakes), and even birds and mammals. Individual species may specialise in a few items or take a wide variety of prey, and for species with large global distributions, different populations may have different diets. Woodland and forest kingfishers take mainly insects, particularly grasshoppers, whereas the water kingfishers are more specialised in taking fish. The red-backed kingfisher has been observed hammering into the mud nests of fairy martins to feed on their nestlings.[15] Kingfishers usually hunt from an exposed perch; when a prey item is observed, the kingfisher swoops down to snatch it, then returns to the perch. Kingfishers of all three families beat larger prey on a perch to kill the prey and to dislodge or break protective spines and bones. Having beaten the prey, it is manipulated and then swallowed.[10] The shovel-billed kookaburra uses its massive, wide bill as a shovel to dig for worms in soft mud.


Kingfishers are territorial, some species defending their territories vigorously. They are generally monogamous, although cooperative breeding has been observed in some species and is quite common in others,[10] for example the laughing kookaburra, where helpers aid the dominant breeding pair in raising the young.[16]

Like all Coraciiformes, the kingfishers are cavity nesters, with most species nesting in holes dug in the ground. These holes are usually in earth banks on the sides of rivers, lakes or man-made ditches. Some species may nest in holes in trees, the earth clinging to the roots of an uprooted tree, or arboreal nests of termites (termitarium). These termite nests are common in forest species. The nests take the form of a small chamber at the end of a tunnel. Nest-digging duties are shared between the genders . During the initial excavations, the bird may fly at the chosen site with considerable force, and birds have injured themselves fatally while doing this. The length of the tunnels varies by species and location; nests in termitariums are necessarily much shorter than those dug into the earth, and nests in harder substrates are shorter than those in soft soil or sand. The longest tunnels recorded are those of the giant kingfisher, which have been found to be 8.5 m (28 ft) long.[10]

The eggs of kingfishers are invariably white and glossy. The typical clutch size varies by species; some of the very large and very small species lay as few as two eggs per clutch, whereas others may lay 10 eggs, the typical is around three to six eggs. Both sexes incubate the eggs. The offspring of the kingfisher usually stay with the parents for 3–4 months.[10]

Status and conservation[edit]

A number of species are considered threatened by human activities and are in danger of extinction. The majority of these are forest species with limited distribution, particularly insular species. They are threatened by habitat loss caused by forest clearance or degradation and in some cases by introduced species. The Marquesan kingfisher of French Polynesia is listed as critically endangered due to a combination of habitat loss and degradation caused by introduced cattle, and possibly due to predation by introduced species.[17]

Relationship with humans[edit]

Kingfishers are generally shy birds, but in spite of this, they feature heavily in human culture, generally due to the large head supporting its powerful mouth, their bright plumage, or some species' interesting behavior.

For the Dusun people of Borneo, the Oriental dwarf kingfisher is considered a bad omen, and warriors who see one on the way to battle should return home. Another Bornean tribe considers the banded kingfisher an omen bird, albeit generally a good omen.[10]

The sacred kingfisher, along with other Pacific kingfishers, was venerated by the Polynesians, who believed it had control over the seas and waves.

Modern taxonomy also refers to the winds and sea in naming kingfishers after a classical Greek myth. The first pair of the mythical-bird Halcyon (kingfishers) were created from a marriage of Alcyone and Ceyx. As gods, they lived the sacrilege of referring to themselves as Zeus and Hera. They died for this, but the other gods, in an act of compassion, made them into birds, thus restoring them to their original seaside habitat. In addition, special "halcyon days" were granted. These are the seven days on either side of the winter solstice when storms shall never again occur for them. The Halcyon birds' "days" were for caring for the winter-hatched clutch (or brood), but the phrase "Halcyon days" also refers specifically to an idyllic time in the past, or in general to a peaceful time.The kingfishers tribe is called the "first one color."

Various kinds of kingfishers and human cultural artifacts are named after the couple, in reference to this metamorphosis myth:

Not all the kingfishers are named in this way. The etymology of kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) is obscure; the term comes from "king's fisher", but why that name was applied is not known.[18]



External links[edit]

Look up kingfisher in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
The kookaburra has a birdcall which sounds like laughter.
  1. ^ abMoyle, Robert G (2006). "A molecular phylogeny of kingfishers (Alcedinidae) with insights into early biogeographic history"(PDF). Auk. 123 (2): 487–499. doi:10.1642/0004-8038(2006)123[487:AMPOKA]2.0.CO;2. 
  2. ^ abGill, Frank; Donsker, David, eds. (2017). "Rollers, ground rollers & kingfishers". World Bird List Version 7.2. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 28 May 2017. 
  3. ^Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel (1815). Analyse de la nature ou, Tableau de l'univers et des corps organisés (in French). Palermo: Self-published. p. 66. 
  4. ^Sibley, Charles G.; Monroe, Burt L. Jr (1990). Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-04969-5. 
  5. ^Christidis, Les; Boles, Walter (2008). Systematics and taxonomy of Australian birds. Collingwood, VIC, Australia: CSIRO. pp. 168–171. ISBN 978-0-643-09602-8. 
  6. ^Andersen, M.J.; McCullough, J.M.; Mauck III, W.M.; Smith, B.T.; Moyle, R.G. (2017). "A phylogeny of kingfishers reveals an Indomalayan origin and elevated rates of diversification on oceanic islands". Journal of Biogeography: 1–13. doi:10.1111/jbi.13139. 
  7. ^ abcdefghijkWoodall, Peter (2001). "Family Alcedinidae (Kingfishers)". In del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 6, Mousebirds to Hornbills. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. pp. 103–187. ISBN 978-84-87334-30-6. 
  8. ^Bancroft, Wilder; Chamot, Emile M.; Merritt, Ernest; Mason, Clyde W. (1923). "Blue feathers"(PDF). The Auk. 40 (2): 275–300. doi:10.2307/4073818. 
  9. ^Schulz, M (1998). "Bats and other fauna in disused Fairy Martin Hirundo ariel nests". Emu. 98 (3): 184–191. doi:10.1071/MU98026. 
  10. ^Legge, S.; Cockburn, A. (2000). "Social and mating system of cooperatively breeding laughing kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae)". Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. 47 (4): 220–229. doi:10.1007/s002650050659. 
  11. ^Birdlife International (2009). "Todiramphus godeffroyi". Red List. IUCN. Archived from the original on 4 June 2011. Retrieved 12 December 2009. 
  12. ^Douglas Harper (2001). "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2007-07-14. 

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