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Nature Notes: Belted Kingfisher

Ed Robinson
November 3, 2022

Every time I see this robin-size bird I cannot help but think that it looks like it was made from mismatched bird parts. The large head sits on a stubby neck, not very sleek. The legs are short, not made for walking. The tail is undersized relative to the body and wings. That long, heavy bill looks like it belongs on a small heron. And the big crest on its head is reminiscent of hairstyles from the punk rock era. Is the belted kingfisher an example of evolution run amok?

Belted kingfisher (Brian Kushner photo)

Have no fear, Mother Nature has a plan for every one of her creatures and they are tailor-made for their environment and lifestyle. Megaceryle alcyon is in fact well designed for its chosen habitat and food preferences. Those short legs are not a handicap since this bird spends much of its time perched on high limbs or wires looking for food in the water below. The kingfisher does not need a long tail for rapid airborne maneuvers since it does not catch food on the wing. That sharp beak and heavy skull are necessary for a bird that plunges eyes closed, head first into the water to snatch fish almost half its length. The big crest on top? The kingfisher is highly territorial so, like the blue jays, it uses that fierce-looking crest and loud calling to scare intruders.

Make no mistake, I am fond of the belted kingfisher and enjoy watching them at work. The bird is often heard before it is spotted, making a sharp, raspy call (chchchchchch) as it flies along streams or pond edges. Their flight pattern is also distinctive, a rapid up and down motion that makes them tough to photograph on the wing. Once you have seen a few of the birds you will quickly recognize their profile as they zip by at speeds up to 45 miles per hour. Fishing is normally done from a high perch along the chosen waterway
but kingfishers will sometimes hover with their bill lowered over a target fish, clearly waiting for the right moment to make the quick dive into the water. This will be followed by a rapid flight back to their perch to swallow the prey head-first. The birds on occasion will snatch small amphibians, crustaceans, mammals, reptiles, insects and berries.

The earliest fossils for the kingfisher family date back two million years. Today there are nearly 120 species of kingfishers around the world but the belted kingfisher is the only one seen regularly north of Texas. While the belted kingfisher specializes in catching fish, many of the other kingfishers are terrestrial and rarely eat fish. You can find the belted kingfisher as far west as the Aleutian Islands, as far east as Newfoundland, and some birds range through Central America and the Caribbean. Our kingfisher is common in
Maine through the warmer months of the year but in mid-autumn most birds will migrate to the coast or points south of Maine to ensure they have access to open water. I see these kingfishers regularly along the coastline as well as on inland waterways.

If you ignore the less than graceful shape of the kingfisher, they are rather handsome birds. The head and upper body parts are a rich grayish-blue, with black tips on the wings. The eyes and the sizable bill are mostly black. There is a white collar around the neck, with a gray-blue band below that and then a white belly. Because of a trait called reverse sexual dimorphism the female is the brighter colored of the two, with a reddish-brown “belt” that extends from her upper belly under the wings. The kingfisher may reach 14 inches
in length and nearly one-half pound in weight, with the female slightly larger than the male. Their 22 inch wing span is fairly wide for a bird this size allowing them to cover long distances—wandering vagrants have been documented as far away as Hawaii and the United Kingdom.

Belted kingfisher (Paul Hartley photo)

It will come as no surprise that the kingfisher nests close to water, but they are unusual in creating a burrow in soft, sandy banks, also home to bank swallows. These burrows are excavated by both sexes, using bills and feet to scratch out a tunnel that might reach up to 16 feet in length with an upward slope to keep water out. While many North American birds have lost habitat in recent decades, the development activities of mankind seem to have assisted kingfishers thanks to the creation of banks along roadsides and waterways. Efforts to improve water quality and to reduce runoff/siltation also helps the birds since they require clear waters and unpolluted prey
to thrive.

The female incubates up to eight eggs for three weeks, and the nestlings are ready to leave the nest in another month. Both parents will defend the nest and their territory with loud calls, flapping of wings and aggressive flights until the intruder leaves. Kingfishers are at risk from raptors while perched or flying and snakes, mink and weasels may attack the burrow.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, belted kingfishers are still common, but the population has fallen more than 50% since 1966. Kingfishers used to be shot and trapped to keep them from killing fish in favored trout streams or at hatcheries but the birds are now protected by migratory bird laws. Partners in Flight estimated the total population of the bird at 1.7 million in their 2014 survey, and while the birds are not threatened at this point, they are considered to be in rapid decline. It would be nice to think that conservation efforts throughout North America can provide a healthy future for the belted kingfisher despite ongoing development caused by the rise in human population.

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