Photo credit: Johann Schumacher
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)
By Abby West
There’s no shortage of gorgeous photos of kingfishers on the internet. These peculiar birds fly sort of like a hummingbird, dive a little like an osprey, and burrow like a mole. Not to mention they are vibrantly colored and interesting to look at because of their oversized heads and stout bills. Here in Central Texas, we’re lucky to have kingfishers year-round along our waterways– especially the Belted Kingfisher. There are three species of kingfisher here- Green, Belted, and Ringed– Belted being the most common and widespread. These small, quick birds have blue backs, white bellies, and patches of rusty orange under their wings. The “belt” likely refers to the blue band that encircles their otherwise white chest, just like a feathery necklace.
Kingfishers live their lives near water of any kind – ponds, lakes, rivers, creeks – as watery creatures like small fish, crustaceans, and amphibians comprise most of their diet. Here in Central Texas, they’re somewhat picky, preferring habitats which have some trees but aren’t overgrown, clear enough water to see into, which moves but not too fast. They hunt fish either from a bare perch along the riverbank or hovering over the water, holding their head completely still as they flap their wings and tail, searching for prey beneath the surface. They are one of only a handful of birds that have evolved exquisite proprioceptive abilities to stabilize their head while their body moves. Not only that, but they are completely distinct among birds in the way they beat their wings at irregular, unpredictable intervals but maintain an overall level flight path.
When they do spot a meal, they decisively fold their wings and dive underwater to catch it. After catching a fish, they fly to the nearest branch with it, clobber its head onto the branch to stop it from flopping around, and swallow it whole. Whenever the going gets tough (or perhaps they’re feeling lazy), they will also eat insects and berries.
Photo credit: Charles Wheeler
Although their diet is somewhat flexible, breeding season (here in Central Texas that’s April-July) is when their finicky nature is most evident. “For nesting they require the eroded face of a sandbank soft enough for the birds to burrow deep into it, and tall and steep enough to make it hard for predators to reach the burrow. As rivers and streams are dammed and channelized, the right kind of sandbank is getting scarcer, thus becoming a limiting factor in the population of Belted Kingfishers”, writes David Sibley. While building a nest, a monogamous pair will both work on digging the burrow, until it is 3-6 feet deep and sloping upward (so rainwater doesn’t collect in it), and ends in a small unlined chamber, about 12” in diameter. This whole process can take up to 3 weeks, and as such they are very particular about the placement of these burrows but have also demonstrated an ability to adapt: they’ll burrow along roadsides, gravel pits, or even in landfills. The biggest issue here is that they’re prone to (understandably) abandon their nests with too much human activity or disturbance. As a result of human encroachment on their habitats, kingfisher populations across North America have been in decline for a number of years now, although their conservation status for the time being remains “low concern”.
Despite their relatively high-maintenance nature, they have been known to travel far and wide throughout the world, and they’ve been here a long, long time: “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.” The next time you spot one, take a moment to admire the ways of this very peculiar bird.