THE BELTED KINGFISHER

(Ceryle alcyon)



For inquiries contact Steve Johnson, Graduate Student, Organismal and Evolutionary Biology, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Amongst the birds you're likely to see along the banks of the Connecticut River is the Belted Kingfisher. As you float down along the shore, this bird can often be seen perched on a branch overhanging the water. From this perch the kingfisher plunge-dives for unsuspecting minnows, and occasionally amphibians or crayfish. Because of its hunting technique, the kingfisher requires clear water to successfully capture a meal. While most kingfishers that live in our area migrate south in the winter, some males remain through out the year. These males are forced to locate unfrozen water to hunt for food. Why these males choose to stay through the winter remains a mystery, but it may be in an effort to secure the best territory possible for the next spring. Aside from two closely related species, the Ringed and Green Kingfishers, all other species of kingfisher live in tropical habitats. So its unusual for kingfishers to experience our winter conditions.

The kingfisher is about 13 inches in height, with a large head and bill. In general, the kingfisher resembles a Blue Jay, only sturdier. The top of the head is crowned with a ragged crest that often looks two-pointed. The head and back are blue, and a blue band runs across the breast of both sexes. Males and females also have a white collar around the neck. In addition, the male has a white belly, while the female has brick red or rufous coloration on the sides and across the white belly in a second band. The Belted Kingfisher is one of only a few species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male.


Female kingfisher held by researcher

The Kingfishers belong to an order of birds known as CORACIIFORMES. One characteristic of this order is syndactyl feet, the outer two toes of which are joined almost to the end.

Kingfishers are fairly shy, and will seldom allow you to approach closer than about 100 feet. Once a bird has decided that you've come too close, it will fly off along the bank away from you giving a distinctive dry rattling call. Kingfishers are very territorial, and often use this call during disputes with neighboring kingfishers. With practice, you'll be able to tell if there are kingfishers near by just by listening for this call.

The nest of the kingfisher is dug into a steep bank, usually close to the river or stream where the parents fish for food. In the spring, the male and female take turns digging the tunnel and nest chamber, which takes 3 to 7 days. The tunnel is about six inches in diameter, six feet long, and ends in a nearly spherical chamber where the eggs are laid.

Nest bank with burrow opening

Nest burrow opening

Eggs in nest chamber

Photographs courtesy of Dr. Dan Albano, Ornithologist

The eggs are incubated for 22 days on average, with both parents sharing in the task. Typically all the eggs hatch synchronously, usually within 12-18 hours. The newly hatched birds weigh only 9-13 grams, while adults weigh 140-170 grams. The young birds grow most quickly during their first ten days of life, and by the age of 16 days will weigh about as much as the parents. Feathers don't begin to grow on the hatchlings until the sixth day, and usually cover the birds by the 16th day. By this time, the young birds begin leaving the nest chamber and exploring the tunnel. The young birds require 8-11 minnow sized fish per day, and the parents will bring food to the young for almost 30 days before the young leave the burrow. With fish in their bills, the parents coax the young from the burrow for the first time, and will continue to feed them occasionally for another 20 days. The young can fly for short distances the first time they leave the burrow, and quickly improve. The novice flyers begin catching aquatic insects and crayfish on their own, and learn to catch fish after a week or more. Once the young birds are independent, they may stay in the area, or move to a new location. The parents generally leave the area, perhaps to provide the young birds with a suitable territory to start their life.