Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyonPhoto by John Hess

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A novice birdwatcher can easily identify a belted kingfisher zipping above the water, calling out its raucous rattle while chasing after a fish.

Kingfishers live around the world, especially in the Pacific and Australia, though not in the polar regions nor the driest deserts. Of about 90 kingfisher species, most live in the tropics. Some live in woods nowhere near fish. Only one, the belted kingfisher, (Megaceryle alcyon), breeds in temperate North America.

A few individuals tough out winter in the Chicago area as long as they can find open water in which to fish. If the water freezes, they may move only far enough to find open water, but most migrate as far south as the northern tip of South America.  

The best known kingfisher is probably Australia’s tree-nesting Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), familiar from the children’s song, “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree, merry merry king of the bush is he, Laugh, Kookaburra, Laugh Kookaburra, gay your life must be.” Like all other kingfishers, Kookaburra has a long bill and nests in a cavity. It is extremely loud; its laugh-like call is said to be an alarm clock for the sun.

The belted kingfisher’s scientific name comes from Greek mythology. The goddess Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds, threw herself into the sea upon learning that a shipwreck killed her beloved husband. The reunited couple was transformed into “halcyon” birds – kingfishers – and nested on the sea. Alcyon’s father protected their eggs by calming the sea for a week before and after the winter solstice. The term has evolved to mean idyllic and peaceful. Walt Whitman writes “Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all. The brooding and blissful halcyon days!”

The belted kingfisher’s large, blue-grey head with its unruly crest and long, dagger-like bill are distinctive. Its back is blue-grey and it has a white collar. The blue belt across the male’s chest is striking against its white background, but, most unusual, it is the female who is the more colorful with her parallel coppery-colored breast band and sides. Kingfishers have stubby tails, and their small feet are almost invisible. They look like
a top-heavy bundle of feathers.

Kingfishers are solitary birds except during mating season. Males establish breeding territories, and females arrive later to presumably check out which ones have the best nesting sites.

The nest is a hole in a bare vertical bank along a watercourse, about two-three feet down from the top. The male begins excavation and then both sexes work in sequence to create a tunnel. Entrances may be two-three inches wide and the tunnel about 10-15 feet long, sloping upward and ending in a round chamber for the offspring. No nesting materials are added. Old nests may be reused but most are started from scratch.

If the composition or location of the bank makes starting a hole difficult, the birds may resort to aerial ramming. Zoologist Paul Hendricks of Montana observed: “The birds repeatedly hit the bank bill-first, either directly or at an upward angle. … Sometimes a kingfisher struck with such force that it struggled to remain airborne after impact.” This is a dangerous business; bills have been damaged and birds killed in the process

Kingfisher couples are monogamous for the season.  Both species vigorously defend their different territories for nesting and foraging. A foraging site can be a mile away from the nest.

A typical nest has seven eggs. Whether the male helps to incubate is the subject of controversy. Incubation takes 22-24 days, the nestling period 27-29 days. After fledging, the young stay around their parents and are fed by them for another three weeks. The success rate of nestlings is surprisingly high, perhaps due to the inaccessibility of the nest holes to predators. Kingfisher behavior is difficult to study because their long tunnels keep their secrets.

Kingfishers have been persecuted because they prey upon fish fry (small fish) in hatcheries. Netting over hatchery ponds has reduced but not eliminated that

Because they are primarily fish eaters, researchers have questioned why kingfishers were not affected by toxins in water, unlike the osprey and eagle who accumulated toxic chemicals from consuming fish. Studies have shown that they may be affected by mercury but the results are still out.

In Evanston, a lone kingfisher can be spotted perching quietly on a bare limb along the North Shore Channel or overlooking Northwestern University’s lagoon, taking a watch-and-wait foraging strategy.

When prey comes into view, the bird will take off with a loud, rattling call. It is commonly heard before it is seen, its harsh rattle filling the air as it flies back and forth over its fishing grounds. The kingfisher may gracefully skim the water like a swallow, occasionally wetting a wingtip.

Typically, though, it will take to the air from its perch, hover over the water, plunge, spear prey with its bill, and return to its perch to pound its prey into insensibility so it can be consumed whole, headfirst. Belted kingfishers’ favorite food is fish, but when unavailable, it will eat salamanders, crayfish, frogs, mice, young birds, and berries. They have been known to nest along the Chicago River in the banks at Miami Woods.

Population studies show a slight decline in the belted kingfisher population overall but so far there is no explanation. One study speculates that, ironically, restoration efforts to create stable stream banks with vegetation to prevent slumping may be taking a toll on kingfisher habitat. Another example in the category of unintended consequences.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.