|A female Belted Kingfisher|
There are about 95 species of kingfishers (depending on which expert you listen to) worldwide. There are 3 that can be found in North America, but only one in the East and throughout most of United States and Canada, the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryl alcyon). Their scientific Genus name is derived from "mega" meaning "great" and "Ceryl" who was a Greek lady who was tragically grieving for her drowned husband before the gods turned them both into the first kingfishers. "Alcyon" is Latin for "kingfisher" but derived from another myth where Halcyon was punished for claiming to rule the gods, but later was allowed to become a bird.
These mid-sized birds have many features fairly unique to them. First of all they're sexually dimorphic. Now many birds are, but in the vast majority, the males tend to be larger and more colorful. It's just the opposite with kingfishers. Not only is the female slightly larger, but also has brighter coloration. Female Belted Kingfishers also have an extra chestnut-colored band across their chest that the males lack. As part of their pair bonding ritual, males typically give a fish to the female in what has been called by some a matrimonial testament that they are good providers.
|A female Belted Kingfisher shows its extra "belt" mark across its chest, though the fused toes are not that evident.|
Kingfishers have a top-heavy look. They have big beaks and large heads, but very short legs. More over, they have unusual toes. Two of them are actually fused together. This strange arrangement allows them to be used as shovels when pushing out dirt.
That's another strange aspect to these birds. They actually nest in burrows underground for the most part. They seek steep banks with loose soil and then excavate a burrow, first using their stout beaks to peck out chunks, and then shoveling them out using their strange feet. Both the male and female take turns digging. It may take them from 3 days to 3 weeks to dig their tunnels, which angle upwards in case of flooding. Since they may use the same site each year, these burrows may range from 3 to 15 feet in length, extending deeper each year as they clean them out.
At the end of this burrow, the mother lays 5-8 white eggs which are incubated by both parents. The female tends to sit on them at night while the males take over during the day. In 22-24 days, the young are born. The nestlings cling together to maintain body heat. They are fed by both parents, starting with partially digested fish before moving on to whole fish. The young leave their holes about 29 days later, but stay with the parents 3 or so weeks more. During this time, they learn to fish, this sometimes taking the form of having the adults drop food into the water for the young to dive after.
Belted Kingfishers are sit-and-wait predators. They normally sit on a perch where they have a good view into the water. Upon seeing potential prey (mostly fish, but also crayfish, molluscs, amphibians, even small reptiles or mammals, whatever is available), they either drop down or hover over top. They dive into the water to seize their prey, normally flying back to their perch once they're successful. There they typically beat the fish into unconsciousness against the perch before tossing it into the air. They catch the fish headfirst, so the spines are less of an issue as they are swallowed whole. Later on, inedible parts (scales, bones, etc.) are coughed back up in pellet form.
Belted Kingfishers migrate all the way into Central America and the Southern states. Occasionally they've turned up in South America and even Europe. But many also stick around as long as they have open water to fish and the prey remains available.
Belted Kingfishers require clear water in order to be able to see their prey. Populations have declined of late, but this bird still remains one of the most widespread in North America. I am thankful for this, as I love hearing their rattling call. I've often enjoyed their company and fishing ability while fishing myself, although I'm sometimes jealous of their success.