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Belted Kingfisher Life History


Lakes and PondsBelted 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.Back to top


FishBelted 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.Back to top


Nest Placement

BurrowBelted 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.

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.

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:1.0-1.1 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.
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Aerial Dive (water)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.Back to top


Low Concern

Belted Kingfishers are common and widespread, but from 1966–2019 their populations declined by an estimated 0.9% per year resulting in a cumulative decline of 38%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 1.8 million and rates them 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. Kingfishers were once hunted and trapped, especially near fish hatcheries and along trout streams, to prevent them from killing fish, but this practice has 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 fish 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, however, and may abandon territories if people begin frequenting the area.

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Kelly, Jeffrey F., Eli S. Bridge and Michael J. Hamas. (2009). Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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