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The sacred kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a medium-sized woodland kingfisher that occurs in mangroves, woodlands, forests, and river valleys in Australia, New Zealand, and other parts of the western Pacific. In New Zealand the species is also known by its Māori name kōtare.[2]

Sacred kingfisher
Sacred kingfisher nov08.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Coraciiformes
Family: Alcedinidae
Subfamily: Halcyoninae
Genus: Todiramphus
T. sanctus
Binomial name
Todiramphus sanctus
(Vigors & Horsfield, 1827)

Halcyon sancta

Wonga, Queensland, Australia

It is called “sacred” for it was said to be a holy bird for Polynesians,[3] who believed it to have control over the waves. Likewise, the local subspecies of collared kingfisher and other kingfishers in the southwestern Pacific were ascribed venerable power over the ocean.[4]



The sacred kingfisher was described by the naturalists Nicholas Aylward Vigors and Thomas Horsfield in 1827 under the binomial name Halcyon sanctus.[5] Halcyon is feminine and the correct name would be Halcyon sancta.[6] Vigors and Horsfield compare their species to Alcedo sacra described by Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1788. Gmelin in turn based his description on John Latham's "Sacred King's Fisher" published in 1782.[7] Latham described several varieties, one of which was illustrated in Arthur Phillip's The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay published in 1789.[8] The genus Halcyon is now split and the sacred kingfisher placed in the genus Todiramphus that had been erected by the French surgeon and naturalist René Lesson in 1827.[9]

Five subspecies are recognised:[10]


The sacred kingfisher is a medium-sized kingfisher. They are mostly turquoise, with white underparts and collar feathers. Both sexes are similar, but females are usually more dull-colored. Juveniles have rusty-brown edges on the collar and underparts.

Range and habitatEdit

Sacred kingfishers are found in Australia, New Zealand, Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island, New Guinea, eastern Indonesia, much of northern and western Melanesia, and the Kermadec Islands. This species breeds throughout much of Australia (except the dry interior), New Zealand, New Caledonia and locally, New Guinea. Populations in the southern two-thirds of Australia migrate northwards at the end of breeding season to New Guinea, east to the eastern Solomon Islands and west to Indonesia becoming uncommon to very sparse as west as Sumatra. Birds move south again to Australia in August to September. It has also occurred as a vagrant on Christmas Island (in the Indian Ocean),[11] Malaysia, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Nauru. A pair spotted in Pampanga Philippines April / May 2016.

In Australia, it occurs in eucalypt forests, melaleuca forests, woodland and paperbark forests. In New Zealand, T. sanctus vagans shows altitudinal migration, with post-breeding movement from higher altitudes to the coast and also from forest to coast and open lands.



The sacred kingfisher is 19–23 cm (7.5–9.1 in) long, and feeds on insects, small crustaceans, fish, small rodents and reptiles, and there are a few reports of them eating small finches. Usually, a bird will sit on a low branch and wait for prey to pass by. It swoops down to grab the prey and returns to its perch to eat, much like a hawk.


Once a pair of birds has mated, both members of the pair dig the nest; a burrow in a river bank, a large, empty branch or a termite mound are prime examples.[12] The female lays about five eggs, and both birds incubate the eggs and take care of the young.


  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Todiramphus sanctus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
  2. ^ Heather, Barrie; Robertson, Hugh (2005). The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand (Revised ed.). Auckland: Viking. ISBN 0-14-302040-4.
  3. ^ Gray, Jeannie; Fraser, Ian (2013). Australian Bird Names: A Complete Guide. Csiro Publishing. p. 180. ISBN 978-0-643-10471-6.
  4. ^ Higgins, Peter J., ed. (1999). "Todiramphus sanctus Sacred Kingfisher" (PDF). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Volume 4: Parrots to dollarbird. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. pp. 1178–1201. ISBN 978-0-19-553071-1.
  5. ^ Vigors, Nicholas Aylward; Horsfield, Thomas (1827). "Australian birds in the collection of the Linnean Society; with an attempt at arranging them according to their natural affinities". Transactions of the Linnean Society of London (in English and Latin). 15 (1): 170-334 [206-208]. The title page is dated 1826.
  6. ^ Peters, James Lee, ed. (1945). Check-list of Birds of the World. Volume 5. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 205.
  7. ^ Latham, John (1782). A General Synopsis of Birds. Volume 1, Part 2. London: Printed for Benj. White. p. 623, Variety D.
  8. ^ Phillip, Arthur (1789). The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay; with an Account of the Establishment of the Colonies of Port Jackson & Norfolk Island, etc. London: Printed for John Stockdale. p. 156.
  9. ^ Lesson, René (1827). "Description d'un nouveau genre d'oiseau. Todirhamphe, Todiramphus". Bulletin des sciences naturelles et de géologie (in French). 12: 268–271 [269].
  10. ^ Gill, Frank; Donsker, David, eds. (2017). "Rollers, ground rollers & kingfishers". World Bird List Version 7.2. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 28 May 2017.
  11. ^ Reville, Barry J. (1993). A Visitor's Guide to the Birds of Christmas Island, Indian Ocean (2nd ed.). Christmas Island Natural History Association. ISBN 0-9591210-4-8.
  12. ^
  • Coates, Brian, J and Bishop, K. David. 1997. A Guide to the Birds of Wallacea. Dove Publications. Brisbane, Qld., Australia.
  • MacKinnon, John and Phillips, Karen. 1993. The Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali. O.U.P. Oxford, UK

External linksEdit