While canoeing on a small creek in western Maryland, I was entertained by a rather flamboyant bird: a belted kingfisher. As we progressed downstream, one swooped back and forth across the creek, rattling a loud distinctive call to let us know we were on its turf.
At one point, another kingfisher appeared hovering over a riffle. Then it dived straight into the water. The bird quickly flew to an overhanging tree limb and displayed its prize: a small fish held tightly in its beak.
Kingfishers, as their name suggests, are excellent fisherman. Although they prey mostly on small fish, they also eat crayfish, mollusks, tadpoles, lizards, newts and large insects. Kingfishers (and terns) are the only small birds that dive headlong from the air into water, often hovering before going after fish. They may also forage from a perch.
A kingfisher dives for its prey with its eyes closed, capturing it with a pincer-like action. They rarely submerge. Instead, kingfishers grab most of their prey near the surface of shallow waters. Once it captures its prey, a kingfisher will stun it by hitting it against a branch. The stunned prey is then tossed, caught head first and swallowed. Clear water and a clear view of prey are vital to the belted kingfisher.
Although the belted kingfisher is common throughout much of North America, it’s really quite a unique bird. About 121/2 inches from head to tail, these blue-gray birds sport a head and bill that are disproportionately large. Belted kingfishers also have a noticeable, bushy, double-peaked crest that reaches from the base of the bill to the nape of its neck. If anything is out of order, a belted kingfisher will often respond by erecting these crest feathers.
Both sexes have a white throat, broad white collar and a blue-gray band across the chest. Unlike most birds where the male is more colorful, the female belted kingfishers also has a chestnut-colored band at midbreast.
Belted kingfishers are easily identified. Their deep irregular wingbeats and large-headed appearance makes them easy to pick out from other streamside birds. Kingfishers often hover before diving into the water, giving even the novice birder time to carefully look them over. These are also very vocal birds, calling while in flight or perching. A harsh rattling call will let you know when you’re in a kingfisher’s territory.
Mostly solitary birds, belted kingfishers are seasonally monogamous. Pair bonds form soon after the male establishes his territory. These pairs will strongly defend their territory throughout the breeding season using vocalizations and aerial chase. The male, especially, will escort an intruder out of his feeding grounds, scolding all the way.
One might expect kingfishers to nest in branches over streams or creeks so they can keep an eye out for the next meal. But this is not the case. After mating, the pair digs a long tunnel into a wall of clay or sand, often into a streambank. At the end of the tunnel they dig a nesting cavity. Both birds dig out the burrow, calling to each other during the process.
Six to eight white, glossy eggs are laid and incubated for 22–24 days. Both parents incubate, with the female sitting through the night, and the male taking her place in the early morning. Chicks leave the burrow after about 28 days. The young remain with the parents and are fed by them with increasing irregularity. Parents teach fishing to perched young by dropping dead meals into water. Eventually, the parents refuse to feed them anymore, and the chicks are forced from the parental territory.
The belted kingfisher occurs in southern Canada, Alaska, throughout the United States, and in Central America. Belted kingfishers favor habitats around streams, creeks, rivers, lakes and even rocky seacoasts. Most individuals migrate, although belted kingfishers are capable of withstanding North American winters provided there is plenty of open water available.
From the Depths to the Air
The scientific name for the belted kingfisher is Ceryle alcyon. Ceryle is from the Greek word for sea bird or kingfisher. Alcyon is the name of a woman in a Greek myth who grieved so much for her drowned husband that the gods turned her and her husband into kingfishers.