The Giant kingfisher is Africa’s largest species of kingfisher. It has a large crest and a big straight black beak. Most of its body is covered with black feathers that are tipped with white spots. A male has an orange breast and its belly is white with some black spots. A female’s breast is black and white spotted and the belly is orange, and the difference between them can be remembered by thinking of a male as wearing an orange shirt and a female wearing an orange skirt.
This species is a resident breeding bird in most of Africa south of the Sahara apart from the arid southwest. In northern Namibia it is fairly common (including the Caprivi Strip), and also in northern and eastern Botswana, central and southern Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. It frequents streams, rivers, lakes, dams and also mountain streams with wooded areas on the margins, both in savannahs and forests. It also occurs in coastal lagoons, estuaries, mangroves, and seashores, and sometimes near stagnant pools in dried-up rivers.
The Giant kingfisher is a diurnal bird and perches on a rock or branch overhanging the water where it scans for prey. It will make a steep or shallow dive to then disappear underwater to catch its prey, before returning quickly to its perch. It may also hover over open water, as many kingfisher species do. It will swallow small crabs whole, but a larger one is moved to the tip of its bill so it can hit it on its perch with swinging movements, to remove carapace and pincers before swallowing the flesh. Fish are usually eaten head first. After a successful catch, the bird moves to a new perch. If fishing at sea, a kingfisher will clean its feathers in fresh water. Like many kingfishers, the Giant kingfisher is solitary and territorial and will defend its territory. It is mainly resident within its range, travelling locally according to water levels. Juveniles disperse after the breeding season.
Giant kingfishers are monogamous. This means that males will mate with only one female and females will mate with only one male. They probably perform aerial flights during courtship, accompanied by calling, with some posturing by the male to show off his plumage pattern, and feeding of the female. The breeding season is from July to January, peaking in August to October. This species is a solitary nester. Its nest is a tunnel dug out within a week by both parents using their bills and feet. A nest will be located in a river bank, sand quarry or cliff, with the entrance often hidden behind overhanging vegetation, high above the water level. 3-5 eggs are laid and both parents incubate them for 25-27 days, taking turns 3-4 times each day. The male removes the egg shells from the nest once the eggs have hatched. Chicks are fed several times each day with fish. The father stops feeding them after a month, and the mother five days later. Young fledge when they are 37 days old, and can dive within several hours, but their mother feeds them for three more weeks.
The Giant kingfisher is quite common in protected areas. However it could be threatened by pesticides leaking into water from farmland, and loss of breeding grounds and habitat.
According to IUCN, the Giant kingfisher is common and widespread throughout its range but no overall population estimate is available. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC), however, its numbers today are decreasing.