When you’re birding and hear a distinctive loud, harsh rattling call and a large, pigeon sized bird flies out over the water, hovers and then plunges head first into the water, you have probably just witnessed a Belted Kingfisher in action. Once in a while Kingfishers make their way to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC due to tangling, concussive injuries or an overzealous hunting dog. Kingfishers can be found throughout the world’s tropics and temperate regions, although absent from some of the world’s driest deserts and also, the polar regions. There are many types of Kingfishers, but North Carolina is home to the belted variety only. Our Belted Kingfisher is approximately 13 inches long, 22” across when wings are extended, dull blue above, white below, with a bluish belt on the breast, except for the female who has rusty colored flanks and a brilliant rusty band across her chest. It’s quite the role reversal in the bird world for the female to be more brightly colored than her male counterpart. The wings and short tail-feathers are black, spotted and barred with white. The flight of this bird is rapid and its motions on the wing consist of a series of flaps, about five or six, followed by a direct glide. The large, some say enormous, shaggy head is crested. Their feet and legs are small in comparison to their body size and located too far back to allow for walking on the ground, which makes their feet fairly weak and only suitable for perching. Although somewhat large in comparison to songbirds, they weigh only 5 ounces. The kingfisher’s diet is mostly fish but they will eat crayfish, shellfish, small birds, mollusks, mammals, worms, insects and lizards. They seem to particularly enjoy grasshoppers. If these food sources are not available, they will eat berries. Their characteristic habit is to sit motionless while watching for their prey, dart after it and return to their perch. They “plunge dive” like a pelican from as high as 50 feet making a steep head-first dive into the water to catch small fish. Their aim must be perfect because they hit the water with closed eyes. They will then fly to a favorite, near-by perch with their prey and beat it to death before tossing it into the air and swallowing it head first. After a tasty meal, they “disgorge” any indigestible bones and scales in pellet form. Wildlife rehabilitators learn quickly that Kingfishers do not peck; they make use of considerable jaw musculature to clamp down tightly with that long, straight bill. And clamp they can, which makes perfect sense when we remember the bird must dive into water to grab wiggly, slimy, smoothly scaled fish and hold on firmly if lunch is to be served; a weak bill just wouldn’t get the job done. Their grip is almost vise-like and to make matters worse both mandibles are edged with tiny irregular serrations that serve to hold slippery fish or the rehabber’s finger with great force. Ouch! Kingfishers also make tunnel nests in riverbanks with that sturdy digging tool mounted on their faces. They burrow into the vertical walls of dirt that edge a body of water, forming tunnels from two to ten feet. The entry hole is just large enough to admit the passage of a single bird at a time (safety feature!). In these tunnels, the female lays 5-8 nearly round, white eggs at one-day intervals and incubation begins by both sexes with the first egg. They hatch at one-day intervals, so the young are different sizes, the oldest up to a week older than the youngest. The parents do not remove the nestlings’ droppings like conscientious song birds do. Chicks apparently not only defecate in the burrow but also throw pellets containing indigestible prey parts. What a mess they must be living in by the end of the nesting period! So we learn that Kingfisher parents are not the good housekeepers other birds are known for. When food is scarce only the older nestlings survive, and there is much competition for the regurgitant food brought by the parents. About 23 days after hatching, the chicks are fledged, and the parents begin teaching them hunting skills. Although, you might see a youngster begging on a branch, you will probably never see the parents feeding them. Once they are in hunting “home” school, it’s all tough love with Mom and Dad! However, if threatened by a predator, Mom has been known to drop onto the water, fluttering and feigning injury to entice the intruder to wade or swim after her. All the while, her mate, perched on a branch or clinging to the edge of the bank, jerks his tail, erects his crest, vocalizes with angry intensity and then springs off to pass and repass the threat, with his most intimidating cry to fend off the dangerous intruder. By 10 days after fledging the young are skillfully able to retrieve small fish. That means the parents’ job is done and the youngsters are driven out of their parents’ territory. Studies suggest that the parents are monogamous with the same pair coming together each breeding season and returning to the same burrow to breed and roost, for many years in succession. So bonding occurs with the adults but with the kids, not so much! Nest predators in our area will be raccoons or snakes and the adult and juvenile Kingfishers need to be on the lookout for the capable Cooper’s Hawk. North Carolina Belted Kingfishers overwinter here and will be joined by migrating Kingfishers from Canada and our New England region who are seeking ice-free areas to hunt. This species, although elusive and difficult to study, is listed as one of the top 20 priority avian species of concern.
Keep your eyes on watch for the King Fisher!
Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of “Save Them All“