I’m not an avid angler. It’s probably because I’m so easily distracted. Dragonflies and damselflies patrol their territories along cattail-lined shorelines. Bullfrogs bellow from the shoreline, and there’s often at least one snapping turtle coming up for air or a water snake swimming toward me.
More often, however, it’s the machine gun-like rattle of a belted kingfisher that grabs my attention. When the bird flies by and lands on a bare branch in a nearby tree, I’m hooked.
Eventually something in the water below catches the block-headed bird’s eye, and the kingfisher flies off and then pulls up and hovers about 20 feet above the water.
For several seconds, the bird beats its wings furiously and holds its position in the air. All the while, it eyes the water intently. Suddenly, the kingfisher folds its wings, plunges and disappears completely beneath the water. Moments later, the successful angler emerges from the stream, minnow in bill, and returns to its perch.
The kingfisher whacks the small fish senseless on the branch. Then, it flips its dinner into the air and swallows it headfirst.
Small fish less than 4 inches long make up more than half of the kingfisher’s diet. Other prey include tadpoles, crayfish, insects, frogs, lizards, small snakes, and occasionally mice and young birds.
Belted kingfishers are easy to identify. Their large (9 to 12 inches) blue-gray bodies contrast with a white collar and belly. A wide blue-gray “belt” crosses the male’s chest. Females wear a second chestnut colored band across the middle of their bellies. A long, heavy bill and prominent crest give kingfishers a big-headed silhouette that’s distinctive.
Kingfishers inhabit both freshwater and marine wetlands throughout most of North America. It’s difficult to visit a stream, river, lake, marsh, or coastal zone and not see a kingfisher. The most important habitat feature seems to be clear water, which makes fish easy to see.
The nesting biology of kingfishers is as interesting as their feeding habits. Like woodpeckers, kingfishers nest in holes. Rarely, however, do they use tree cavities. Instead of chiseling holes in wood, kingfishers excavate tunnels in exposed vertical sandy banks of streams, lakes, gravel pits, and road cuts.
Both sexes take turns digging the nest tunnel. They dig with their bills, and kick the dirt out with their feet. The tunnel to the nest chamber is about four inches in diameter and usually three to six feet long, though it may be as long as 15 feet. It ends in a large circular nesting chamber the size and shape of a flattened, half-inflated basketball. The entire excavation takes about two or three weeks.
The female lays five to eight white eggs on the unlined floor of the nest chamber. If the burrow has been used before, the floor of the nest may be lined with fish scales and bones. Kingfishers, like owls, regurgitate pellets of indigestible body parts after dining.
The male and female share incubation duties. Females take the night shift; males incubate by day. The eggs hatch about 24 days after the last one is laid. Kingfishers raise only one brood each year, but they renest repeatedly if early nests are destroyed by predators or rising water.
Young kingfishers remain in the nest until they are about a month old and able to fly. They stay near the nest burrow the first few days after fledging and watch their parents fish.
Parent kingfishers use an interesting technique to teach their offspring how to fish. Often adults catch a fish, beat the life out of it on a perch, then drop it back into the water. This enables young kingfishers to practice fishing for prey that cannot escape.
Hungry, young kingfishers learn quickly. About 10 days after leaving the nest, juveniles begin fishing for live prey on their own. Within two weeks of fledging, the adults drive the young from their territory. Belted kingfishers live solitary lives except during the breeding season.
Whenever you hear a kingfisher’s rattle, the fishing might be good. After all, where there are little fish, there are usually bigger fish, too.