The elusive belted kingfisher

By Jeanne Church

One of the most difficult birds for me to capture in a photograph is the belted kingfisher. It’s an elusive bird with an uncanny sense of knowing where I am at all times! Kingfishers have such good eyesight that it’s hardly a stretch of my imagination to believe that they see me coming long before I even leave the house!  

If you’re not familiar with belted kingfishers, they are large gray-blue birds with stocky bodies, big, crested heads, stubby tails, short legs, and a long, sharp, thick beak! Overall, kingfishers give the impression of being very top-heavy. Interestingly, kingfishers are one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male. She has reddish-brown markings on her chest and lower body while the male does not.

More often than not, you will hear a belted kingfisher before you ever see one! They have a loud, distinctive, rattling call which is unmistakable once you’ve heard it. It’s so distinctive, in fact, that the collective noun for a group of kingfishers is “rattle”—as in “a rattle of kingfishers.”

These birds like to hang out near unclouded bodies of water where it is easy for them to see their prey just below the surface. Their favorite hunting grounds include streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, estuaries, and calm marine waters where they can find a place to perch with an unobstructed view of the water.

These stocky little birds live mostly on a diet of small fish, but when the water isn’t clear enough, or the competition for prey is tough, they will hunt for crayfish. When times are particularly difficult, they will resort to eating insects, tadpoles, baby salamanders, butterflies, moths, snakes, turtles and even juvenile birds.

As soon as a kingfisher spots its prey near the surface, it will dive into the water with its eyes shut and stab the fish with its long, sharp bill. After making its catch, the kingfisher will return to a nearby perch and subdue the fish by whacking it senseless against a hard surface. Once subdued, the fish will be tossed up into the air and caught head first! Sometimes, you’ll see the fish still sticking out of the kingfisher’s beak, possibly because it’s too large for their belly. In which case, the kingfisher will have to wait until his stomach digests the first part before swallowing the rest. After the meaty part of the fish is digested, the kingfisher will spit out all the undigestible parts– like the bones and the scales.

Although belted kingfishers are still common and widespread, their numbers are decreasing in some areas due to habitat loss. These birds are especially sensitive to disturbance, particularly during their nesting season, and may abandon breeding areas when faced with too much human activity.

For other fascinating facts and to hear the calls of a belted kingfisher, here’s a great website:

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