The Belted Kingfisher

The Belted Kingfisher

An animal of the sky, water and earth

Kingfishers or Alcedinidae are a family of small to medium-sized, boldly marked birds in the order Coraciiformes. There are 114 species world-wide, four of which can be found in North America. Kingfishers are identified, even in silhouette, by their large heads, long, pointed bills, short legs, and squared-off tails.

The new Coastal Rivers logo (stay tuned for the official reveal later this week!) features the Belted Kingfisher, the only Kingfisher on the East Coast of North America. Male and female Belted Kingfishers can be distinguished because the females have a chestnut band on the breast and flanks, which the males lack.

The Belted Kingfisher, like other Kingfishers, is an animal of the sky, the water and the earth. It hunts by hovering in the air, or perching on a high limb, and diving into the water after its prey, mostly small fish like Mummichog. It is also opportunistic – feeding on frogs, crustaceans, mollusks and rarely small birds and even berries. Kingfishers nest by making burrows in the earth, generally near waterways.

The pairs are monogamous for the season but may choose new mates each year. They nest deep in banks above the water, digging burrows up to 14’ long with a room at the furthest reaches in which they raise their family. Kingfishers have short legs and small feet with specialized long, flat toe and sharp, pointed claws help expedite digging. Male and females work together to build the burrow, sometimes taking weeks to complete it.

The female Belted Kingfisher lays five to eight eggs and in southern regions may have two broods of chicks in the course of the summer (though this is unlikely in Maine). The eggs are about 1.5” and a smooth, glossy white. They are incubated by both parents for 27 to 29 days.

The young are born helpless, with pink skin bare of feathers, and with closed eyes. They slowly develop within the burrow while both parents feed them partially digested, regurgitated fish and eventually whole, small fish. The young leave the nest after about a month, although the parents continue to feed them and teaching them to hunt.

Belted Kingfisher nestlings have highly acidic stomachs, helping them to digest the meals their parents bring to the burrow – including bones, fish scales, and arthropod shells. As the nestlings grow, their stomach chemistry changes, and they begin regurgitating pellets like adult kingfishers and some raptors do.

Sometimes Belted Kingfishers hunt by hovering over the water, but more commonly they use the sit-and-wait method. They will 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.

belted kingfisher flying over water

To find a kingfisher, and observe its habits, visit any body of water – fresh or salt – with overhanging limbs and steep, sandy banks. These birds will sometimes even use man-made banks, including sandpits and the like. Kingfishers tend to be quiet and are generally solitary if they are not raising young. They will raise the alarm, however, if disturbed, and their rattling call is distinctive and carries well over the water.

Belted Kingfishers winter in many of the lower 48 states (though rarely in New England), through Mexico and Central America, and some travel as far as northern South America.

In Wabanaki culture the Kingfisher is observed to be a patient and excellent hunter. It is a teacher, setting an example for all who are observant enough to see that to be a successful hunter one must be like a Kingfisher: be patient, wait for your prey to come near, and then plunge into the water.

Alcyon, the Belted Kingfisher’s species name, is derived from the Greek word halcyon, meaning “kingfisher.” In Greek mythology, Alcyon was the daughter of Aeolus – the keeper of the winds. Alcyon and her husband angered Zeus and were drowned for it, but more compassionate gods took pity on the couple and turned them into kingfishers. Each year, Aeolus calmed the ocean winds so Alcyon could safely nest and raise her young on the surface of the sea. While kingfishers do not actually nest on the ocean’s surface, the term “halcyon days” is used to describe calm mid-winter days at sea. The term’s meaning has evolved to encompass any idyllic period of peace and serenity.

Kingfisher photos courtesy of V. J. Anderson.