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Belted Kingfisher

Megaceryle alcyon ORDER: CORACIIFORMES FAMILY: ALCEDINIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

With its top-heavy physique, energetic flight, and piercing rattle, the Belted Kingfisher seems to have an air of self-importance as it patrols up and down rivers and shorelines. It nests in burrows along earthen banks and feeds almost entirely on aquatic prey, diving to catch fish and crayfish with its heavy, straight bill. These ragged-crested birds are a powdery blue-gray; males have one blue band across the white breast, while females have a blue and a chestnut band.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
11–13.8 in
28–35 cm
Wingspan
18.9–22.8 in
48–58 cm
Weight
4.9–6 oz
140–170 g
Relative Size
Smaller than an American Crow; larger than a Hairy Woodpecker.
Other Names
  • Martin-pêcheur d'Amérique (French)
  • Martín Pescador Norteño, Martín Pescador Migratorio, Martín Pescador Pasajero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The breeding distribution of the Belted Kingfisher is limited in some areas by the availability of suitable nesting sites. Human activity, such as road building and digging gravel pits, has created banks where kingfishers can nest and allowed the expansion of the breeding range.
  • The Belted Kingfisher is one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male. Among the nearly 100 species of kingfishers, the sexes often look alike. In some species the male is more colorful, and in others the female is.
  • During breeding season the Belted Kingfisher pair defends a territory against other kingfishers. A territory along a stream includes just the streambed and the vegetation along it, and averages 0.6 mile long. The nest burrow is usually in a dirt bank near water. The tunnel slopes upward from the entrance, perhaps to keep water from entering the nest. Tunnel length ranges from 1 to 8 feet.
  • As nestlings, Belted Kingfishers have acidic stomachs that help them digest bones, fish scales, and arthropod shells. But by the time they leave the nest, their stomach chemistry apparently changes, and they begin regurgitating pellets which accumulate on the ground around fishing and roosting perches. Scientists can dissect these pellets to learn about the kingfisher’s diet without harming or even observing any wild birds.
  • Belted Kingfishers wander widely, sometimes showing up in the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, the British Isles, the Azores, Iceland, Greenland, and the Netherlands.
  • Pleistocene fossils of Belted Kingfishers (to 600,000 years old) have been unearthed in Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas. The oldest known fossil in the kingfisher genus is 2 million years old, found in Alachua County, Florida.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

Belted Kingfishers need access to bodies of water for feeding, and vertical earthen banks for nesting. They hunt in unclouded water that allows them to see prey below the surface, with perches nearby but minimal vegetation obstructing the water. Some of their most common habitats are streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, estuaries, and calm marine waters. During the breeding season Belted Kingfishers breed throughout most of North America at elevations up to 9,000 feet. They winter in similar habitats, as well as in mangroves, swamps, and brackish lagoons in the Central American parts of their wintering range.

Food


Fish

Belted Kingfishers live mostly on a diet of fish including sticklebacks, mummichogs, trout, and stonerollers. They also eat crayfish and may eat other crustaceans, mollusks, insects, amphibians, reptiles, young birds, small mammals, and even berries. A kingfisher looks for prey from a perch that overhangs water, such as a bare branch, telephone wire, or pier piling. When it spots a fish or crayfish near the surface, it takes flight, dives with closed eyes, and grabs the prey in its bill with a pincer motion. Returning with its prize, it pounds the prey against the perch before swallowing it head first. It may also hover above the water instead of searching from a perch. As nestlings, Belted Kingfishers digest the bones and scales they consume, but by the time they leave the nest they begin disgorging pellets of fish skeletons and invertebrate shells.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
5–8 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.2–1.5 in
3–3.7 cm
Egg Width
1–1.1 in
2.5–2.9 cm
Incubation Period
22–24 days
Nestling Period
27–29 days
Egg Description
Pure white, smooth, and glossy.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with bare pink skin, blackish bill, and closed eyes.
Nest Description

The male and the female take turns digging the burrow, with males spending about twice as much time digging as females. They usually take 3–7 days to finish it, but may sometimes take up to 3 weeks. The completed burrow extends 3–6 feet into the bank, sloping upward so that rainwater won’t collect inside, and ends in an unlined chamber 8–12 inches in diameter and 6–7 inches high. Throughout the breeding season a layer of undigested fish bones, fish scales, and arthropod exoskeletons may accumulate and provide some insulation.

Nest Placement

Burrow

Belted Kingfishers excavate burrows in earthen banks, usually avoiding ones with vegetation (especially trees, whose roots get in the way of digging). They generally choose a bank near water, but may use a ditch, road cut, landfill, sand pit, or gravel pit far from water. A pair may select a nest site during courtship, usually high in the bank where floodwaters are unlikely to reach. The male probes the bank with his bill, flying back and forth to the female, who calls continuously from a nearby perch.

Behavior


Aerial Dive

Belted Kingfishers spend most of the year alone until they pair up during the breeding season. Males (and occasionally females) establish territories, which usually conform to the shape of the stream or shoreline. Belted Kingfishers are monogamous within each breeding season but form new pairs every year. The male feeds the female while courting her. Both members of the pair vigorously defend their territory by chasing away intruders while giving loud rattle calls. Kingfishers sometimes nest among Bank Swallows, especially in human-made habitats. Rough-winged Swallows may try to nest in kingfisher burrow entrances, but the kingfishers go in and out so frequently that they drive the swallows away. Predators of kingfishers include hawks, mammals, and snakes. When a Belted Kingfisher suspects an intruder in its territory, 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.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Belted Kingfishers are common and widespread, but from 1966–2011 their populations declined by an estimated 1.4 percent per year according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, resulting in a cumulative decline of 46 percent. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 1.7 million, with 70 percent spending some of the year in the U.S., 49 percent in Canada, and 19 percent wintering in Mexico. They rate an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List, although they are listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. People used to shoot and trap kingfishers, especially near fish hatcheries and along trout streams, to prevent them from killing fish. But hunting apparently did no long-term harm to the population, and has since been outlawed through migratory bird laws. Compared to other fish-eating birds, Belted Kingfishers seem to be relatively unaffected by environmental contaminants, possibly because their small prey accumulates only low levels of toxins. Kingfisher populations are limited by the number of earthen banks available for nesting, and some populations have grown and spread thanks to human-made sand and gravel pits. They are sensitive to disturbance, and may abandon territories if people begin frequenting the area.

Credits

Range Map Help

Belted Kingfisher Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to long-distance migrant. In much of the breeding range open water is available even in the winter, so kingfishers may stay year-round. Kingfishers breed as far north as northern Alaska and Canada, and these birds migrate south for winter. Belted Kingfishers winter throughout Mexico and Central America to northern Venezuela and Colombia. Of the populations that do migrate, males seem to travel shorter distances than females.

Backyard Tips

Belted Kingfishers sometimes come to backyards that contain ponds or goldfish pools, often to the dismay of the homeowners.

Find This Bird

Belted Kingfishers are common along streams and shorelines across North America. You’ll probably hear a loud, rattling call before you see the kingfisher. Its large head and hefty bill give it a distinctive profile as it patrols its territory, using the open space above the water as a flyway. They also perch on riverside branches and telephone wires. Belted Kingfishers also make long commuting flights over fields and forests, far from water, so be prepared for the occasional surprise flyover wherever you are birding.