A chattering, rattling call along the river or lakeside announces
the presence of a Belted Kingfisher. Often heard before seen, this
dagger-billed, shaggy-crested bird is usually spotted next to a
river or lake, or hovering over the water before plunging headfirst
to snag a fish. Its distinctive, big-headed appearance and neat-looking
blue-and-white plumage make it hard to confuse for any other bird
sharing its habitat, be it a Green
Heron or Barn
The Belted Kingfisher's species name alcyon derives from the Greek
word halcyon, meaning kingfisher. Alcyon was a mythological figure,
the daughter of Aeolus, the god of wind. She and her husband angered
Zeus and were drowned; more compassionate gods then turned the devoted
couple into kingfishers. Each year, Aeolus calmed the ocean winds
so Alcyon could safely nest and raise her young on the surface of
the sea. Although we know now that kingfishers do not nest on the
ocean's surface, "halcyon days" calm days at sea
in mid-winter are still recognized, and the term has also
come to mean any idyllic period of peaceful calm.
Tunneling for Two
Belted Kingfishers nest in tunnels, which the birds excavate in
a sandy bank, usually along a body of water. Although kingfishers
have short legs and small feet, a specialized long, flat toe and
sharp, pointed claws help expedite digging. The tunnel, ranging
from one to eight feet long, slopes upward from the entrance, probably
to keep water from flooding the nest chamber where the female lays
her eggs. A nest tunnel can take several weeks to dig, and may be
reused from year to year.
Sometimes swallows share kingfisher tunnels, digging out small
rooms for themselves in the walls. No one knows what kingfishers
think about these tenants!
Belted Kingfishers are found near both inland and coastal waterways
throughout North America. Northern populations move south in winter
to more temperate regions, following major bodies of water as they
migrate. Belted Kingfishers winter in much of the lower 48 states
(scarcest in colder regions), through Mexico and Central America,
and some reach northern South America, including the Galápagos
Flycatchers, Belted Kingfishers hunt using a sit-and-wait strategy,
from a perch with a clear view over their feeding territory. Clear
water is essential for successful hunting, as the kingfisher needs
an accurate fix on its aquatic prey before it strikes. This bird's
diet consists mostly of fish species that live in shallow water
or swim near the surface, but Belted Kingfishers will also take
crayfish, insects, frogs, snakes, young birds, and small mammals.
After capturing a small creature, the kingfisher returns to its
perch and subdues its meal by pounding it against a hard surface.
Then it positions the prey so that it is swallowed head-first. Like
Barn or Great
Horned Owls, adult kingfishers regurgitate pellets composed
of indigestible parts of their meals, such as bones, shells, and
Each spring, a male Belted Kingfisher establishes and aggressively
defends a waterside territory that is usually around a half-mile
long. When a female kingfisher consents to move in, the pair begins
to court with noisy aerial chases. A male will also feed a female
during courtship. Once the burrow is dug and eggs are laid, both
parents share incubation duties.
Kingfisher male with prey, Ray Hennessy, Shutterstock
Unlike many birds, the female Belted Kingfisher is more brightly
colored than the male, with a rust-colored belly band to complement
her otherwise blue-and-white plumage.
Belted Kingfisher nestlings have particularly acidic stomachs,
which helps them digest the meals their parents bring to the burrow
including bones, fish scales, and arthropod shells. By the
time they leave the nest, the young birds' stomach chemistry changes,
and they begin regurgitating pellets like adult kingfishers do.
Keep Conservation Afloat
Although the Belted Kingfisher is still common and widespread,
it is decreasing in some areas due to habitat
loss. Kingfishers are sensitive to disturbance, particularly
during their nesting season, and may abandon breeding areas when
faced with too much human activity. Despite the protections afforded
by the Migratory
Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), this species is still sometimes seen
as a threat at fish hatcheries and commercial trout streams, and
may be illegally persecuted at these places.
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