Silently I walked through the trees, toward the lake. On the shore stood a bird-watching blind. I stepped inside and sat down to watch.
With a soft thump, something landed on the roof. What could it be? I wondered. The answer came when the creature took flight. He hovered, like a helicopter, above the lake, and dove for a fish dinner. I won’t soon forget that comical kingfisher.
The Belted Kingfisher’s head seems too large for his body. It is topped with a shaggy crest. Adult females have a chestnut-colored band across their front. Adult males lack this marking, making them less colorful than females—an oddity in birds.
These creatures live in North America and northern South America. Stray birds have appeared in places as far away as the British Isles and Greenland.
Belted Kingfishers live near streams, ponds, and lakes, and also along the seacoast. Their diet includes crayfish, frogs, mollusks, and of course fish.
To catch fish, the birds hover or perch over water. Once they spot their prey, the birds plunge into the water. If all goes well for the bird, but not for the fish, the kingfisher flies out with dinner in his bill. He returns to his perch, pounds the fish until it’s dead, and swallows it headfirst. When the fish goes down this way, its sharp fins lie flat and don’t harm the bird.
Some Belted Kingfishers are year-round residents. Ones living where lakes freeze in winter, migrate south to open water. In the spring, they return north and announce their arrival with a loud, rattling call.
At nesting time, the birds form a pair. Male and female work together to raise a family.
They don’t nest in a tree or on the ground. They nest in a tunnel. The bank where the birds nest may not be near water. To make the tunnel, they dig with their bills and kick the soil out with their feet. Excavation takes anywhere from a few days to two weeks. Tunnels are usually 3-6 feet (1-2 m) long, but some may be as long as 15 feet (4 m). At the far end, the pair makes a chamber where five to eight white eggs are laid. Incubation takes about three weeks. The babies hatch pink, helpless, and hungry. Very hungry!
Both parents feed the young. The nestling phase is nearly a month long. While in the nest, the birds eat and digest the flesh, bones, and shells of prey. After the young leave the nest, their stomachs become less acidic, and they only digest flesh. Bones and shells are regurgitated as pellets. These graveyards of bones and shells may be found under perches where the birds feed.
There are nearly one hundred kinds of kingfishers in the world. Belted Kingfishers are a common species.