Wild Ideas: The raucous, acrobatic belted kingfisher

The belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) is a stocky, medium-sized bird that is packed with power — and knows it. Loud, raucous, flashy, lively, quick, conspicuous and yet elusive, the kingfisher is a cocky bird that displays, as AllAboutBirds.org puts it, “an air of self-importance” as it patrols its territory.

This animated female belted kingfisher could have spotted the photographer, raising her ragged crest and giving a rattle call in alarm.John Benson via Wikimedia
This animated female belted kingfisher could have spotted the photographer, raising her ragged crest and giving a rattle call in alarm.

Among the nearly 100 kingfisher species, only three live north of Mexico year round, with the belted kingfisher being the most widespread. They reside near inland bodies of clear water, estuaries and calm marine waters.

When I look at a kingfisher, I think of a bluejay on steroids. Although the two species are from different bird families, there are similarities, starting with their appearance. They both sport feathers in varying shades of blue and gray on top and are white underneath. Both also have crests, although the kingfisher’s is more ragged. In terms of behavior, both kingfishers and jays are noisy guardians of their territory, sending up loud alarm calls when disturbed.

The similarities pretty much end there, with the two species varying enough in appearance and behavior that even a newbie birder could easily sort them out. The kingfisher is larger than a jay — about 13 inches long, with a 20-inch wingspan — and weighs in at about five ounces.

It is also more compact and top-heavy, giving it a distinct outline. As the Audubon website notes, “Its large head, larger bill, and stocky appearance create the impression of a bird that is somewhat out of proportion.” Its flight resembles that of woodpeckers — short and jerky.

Unusual among birds, females in some kingfisher species sport more color than the males. The “belted” part of M. alcyon’s common name refers to the bands of color across its white chest. The females have a blue and a chestnut band, while the males have only a blue band.

As their common name implies, kingfishers eat primarily fish and crustaceans, but also consume other birds, amphibians and reptiles, small mammals, insects and even berries. In turn, they are preyed upon by hawks, mammals and snakes.

Kingfishers use a sit-and-wait approach to hunting, finding a perch on unobstructed “watch points,” such as bare tree limbs, along or in water bodies and looking for prey in the water below. ARKive.org has a great video of a kingfisher at work, shown in slow motion, and describes the bird’s acrobatic fishing technique:

“It will hover briefly, up to 15 metres above the water’s surface, before diving vertically into the water, spreading its wings to break its fall. The belted kingfisher catches its target in its long beak with a pincer-like movement, before retracting its neck, turning its body and flying up through the water to take to flight.”

The bird then takes its prey back to the perch and kills or stuns it by repeatedly banging it against the perch. With fish, the kingfisher then maneuvers its prey around with its beak to where the fish can slide down the bird’s throat head first.

The belted kingfisher’s digestive system changes as its ages, according to AllAboutBirds.org (which also boasts several recorded kingfisher calls). As a nestling, it has an acidic stomach that helps the bird digest bones, fish scales and shells of arthropods, such as crawfish and insects. However, by the time the young leave the nest, they begin regurgitating pellets of those portions of their prey, much like owls do. One way to figure out if a kingfisher is in the area is to look for these pellets clustered below bare perches near water.

Although common throughout the U.S., the belted kingfisher is shy and more often heard than seen. Having lived near ponds and rivers in Rappahannock, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing many but have seen few, and then for only a brief moment as they fly away.

One’s been hanging around the ponds where I live now, but the minute I show up at one, it beelines for the other pond, giving its distinctive harsh rattle call as it goes. If I try to follow it, it heads for the river, just a few yards away, then back to the other pond. We’ve played this game several times, but the bird always wins. I have yet to get a good enough look at it to even determine its gender. I often sit quietly in one spot down there, hoping it will become inured to my presence so I can observe it more closely, but so far it has remained elusive.

Despite their shyness around humans, belted kingfishers take advantage of some changes we’ve made to their natural habitat. The kingfisher where I live has adopted poles, piers, power lines and other manmade structures as watch points. I’ve often seen a kingfisher doing the same at the Avon Hall pond.

The female at right, with the chestnut band across her chest, is showing the classic way kingfishers eat fish, sliding the fish down her throat head first. The other kingfishers are males, with only a bluish-gray chest band.John J. Audubon
The female at right, with the chestnut band across her chest, is showing the classic way kingfishers eat fish, sliding the fish down her throat head first. The other kingfishers are males, with only a bluish-gray chest band.

The adaptation to some human disturbance also extends to nest sites, which normally consist of holes kingfishers dig in dirt banks near water. According to AllAboutBirds.org, kingfishers have adapted to using banks humans create during road and gravel-pit construction, enabling the species to expand its breeding range. The nest burrow can extend up to eight feet from the entrance, angling upward, which may help prevent water from entering the nest and drowning the chicks. Generally solitary birds, kingfishers pair up to breed and raise their young, defending a territory along a stream or shore for about a half mile.

Although more inclined to fly away, if a kingfisher suspects an intruder in its territory, it may defend its turf, especially if the kingfisher is nesting. It can be quite fierce when doing so, as described by AllAboutBirds.org:

“It may land on a perch and heave its body up and down with its crest elevated, or fly back and forth along the water, rattling noisily until the intruder leaves. If threatened, it may scream, spread its wings and raise the patch of white feathers next to each eye.”

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 286 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”