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Belted Kingfisher - the one and only

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Photo by Michael Woodruff, Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game Photo by Michael Woodruff, Idaho Dept. of Fish and Game

A Bird in Hand on a bird like no other

Many birds prey on fish. Eagles swoop down and pluck them from the water surface, getting nary a drop on themselves. Osprey plunge in feet first, before launching themselves back into the air with a water-shedding shudder. Mergansers, cormorants, and many other species dive deeply from the water’s surface in hot pursuit of their scaled meals. But the Belted Kingfisher does this its own unique way. It drops into the water like a plumb-bob, pointy end down; head first to keep its eye on the action. Then, like a duck, it launches itself back into the air, victim in beak, to find a comfortable perch so as to enjoy its meal. 

There is no other bird like the Belted Kingfisher in our area. If you lived along the Rio Grande River in Texas, you might have an opportunity to spy either the Ringed or Green Kingfishers, which bookend the Belted for size. If anything, this fact simplifies identifying our featured bird. If you see a kingfisher around our neck of the woods or anywhere else north of the Mexican border, it will be a Belted. 

Kingfishers are easy to identify. They are about a foot in length, though they don’t really appear to be that large. It is difficult to measure the size of any bird in the field. The most notable features will be the oversized head with a shaggy crest and a huge—I mean, huge—beak. The dominant colors are blue and white: blue on top, white below. The head, back, and wings are steely blue, though note the black wing and tail tips spotted with white. The neck is ringed with a wide white band. The breast and belly are also white. But what also makes the Belted Kingfisher peculiar among birds is... the rest of the story. 

The female is more colorful than the male, which is an unusual trait among birds. Both the male and the female will have a blue ‘belt’ that stretches between the shoulders and over the breast. This belt can form a triangular shape in the center that points down toward the belly. The female, on the other hand, will have a second, rusty-red belt, below and parallel to the blue belt, separated by another band of white. She might also have some of that same rusty-red alongside her flanks, though some males might also exhibit this coloring. But the male will never have that red belt. This is a female-only fashion accessory. But both can carry a little bit of red in their blue belt. 

Belted Kingfishers like to perch over the water while fishing. A bare branch or telephone wire is often used. I have even watched Kingfishers monitor a small patch of ice-less water during the winter. Otherwise, they will hunt from a hovering position while flying well above the water surface. Indeed, they are one of the few birds that is able to truly hover. The only other ones in our area that I can think of are hummingbirds and kestrels. Granted, we’ll see other birds hovering for extended periods of time, such as Red-tailed hawks, but these birds are actually exploiting headwinds. Kingfishers do not require headwinds in order to hover. 

A mated-pair of kingfishers will keep a territory of prime fishing waters of about a half-mile or so in length. They will also utilize a bare bank a few feet above the water’s edge for their burrow. The birds will excavate a tunnel that slops upward for a few feet, maybe several feet, before hollowing out the end for their nest. The upward slope is thought to protect the nest during times of flooding, as an air pocket is formed if rising water cuts off the burrow. Very clever. 

Along with fish, kingfishers will eat crawdads, salamanders, or any other underwater life form worth its time, whether fur, fin, scale or shell. For the kingfisher, water life is a buffet. It is also quite impressive the size of fish these birds can swallow. I guess they are equipped with that oversized beak for a reason. They must have a belly to match!

Two last notable field marks to keep in mind. The Belted Kingfisher flies like a woodpecker, in that it flaps, soars, flaps, soars, in an undulating fashion. Sort of a like a high school physics illustration in wave patterns. I actually find this flying pattern quite intriguing. And listen for the bird’s call. It is often described as a “rattle.” This is very accurate, though I am hard pressed to come up an analogy. Think of a Stellar’s Jay call with special effects. Unmistakable and unforgettable. 

Belted Kingfishers, cool birds. And quite unique in many ways. Make sure when you are out in the field to scope out both of the birds, male and female. It is worth the effort. Happy birding! 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, wildlife, birding, belted kingfisher

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