The Belted kingfisher is often apparent from its wild rattling call while it flies over lakes or rivers. It can be seen perched high on a snag, or hovering while it beats its wings rapidly, before plunging headfirst into water to grasp a fish. It is found throughout almost all of North America in one season or another, and is the only member of the kingfisher family to be found in most areas to the north of Mexico.
The Belted kingfisher has a wide distribution across North America, Central America, the West Indies and northern South America. It breeds only in North America, but in winter migrates from the colder northern latitudes to more temperate or tropical regions. This species is found in habitats that are both coastal and inland. In the breeding season, they are most often found by streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and estuaries which have near vertical earth banks which it excavates to build its nest. Outside the breeding season, belted kingfishers follow major waterways when migrating, to occupy tropical habitats in coastal areas such as mangroves.
Habits and lifestyle
Belted kingfishers are solitary and active during early morning, late afternoon and in the early evening. This bird is a sit-and-wait predator which mostly hunts from a perch on a branch, pylon or a pier, which affords a clear view over its feeding territory. The Belted kingfisher’s geographic range mostly has a mild winter, so it is able to support this species year round, and migration is usually based on the availability of food. Once the birds establish their territory, they tend to be more or less confined to that location. Outside the breeding season, territories can be from 300 to 500 m of the shoreline. Within their territory, a Belted kingfisher will move above the water, below the canopy, up and down the body of water, searching for food. Its wing beats can appear unmethodical at times. Potential threats such as another bird, a human, or a predator entering the territory will be boldly pursued and with the kingfisher vocalizing loudly until the threat leaves. The bird’s call is loud, long, and chattering.
Diet and nutrition
The Belted kingfishers are carnivores (piscivores), they mainly eat fish that are 9-14 cm long but also eat mollusks, crustaceans, amphibians, lizards, nestling birds such as quails and sparrows, small rodents and various insects. They eat berries during winter.
Belted kingfishers have a serial monogamous mating system, and a pair forms that will work together during nesting. The male establishes a territory during the breeding season and the female will visit it. They chase each other in flight, accompanied by loud calls. A male will give food to a female as courtship, and before copulation. The breeding season is from April to May while the pair finishes construction of their nest, which is in an underground burrow near water. They both work together to dig the tunnel, this work lasting sometimes a few days. 6-7 white eggs are laid and are incubated for 22-24 days by both parents. Chicks are born naked with pink skin and a black bill. They are fed for the first 5-6 days by their parents by regurgitation of fish that has been semi-digested. Chicks fledge at about 27-35 days from hatching, but depend on their parents for food for another three weeks.
The Belted kingfisher is one of North America’s most widespread and abundant land birds. However, the population is probably decreasing in some areas as a result of both disturbance and persecution. Prior to these birds being afforded greater protection, they were shot and trapped, being perceived as a threat to commercial trout streams and fish hatcheries.
The All About Birds resource states that the global breeding population of the Belted kingfisher consists of 1.7 million individuals, 70% spending part of the year in North America and 49% in Canada, with 19% wintering in Mexico. The New Mexico Avian Conservation Partners resource records that the total population size is 2,200,000 individuals, and that less than 1% of this, or about 7,400 birds, live in New Mexico. According to the Alaska Species Ranking System Summary Report, there are 250,000 Belted kingfishers in Alaska, and, according to the Government of Canada (Status of Birds in Canada) resource, 500,000 - 5,000,000 Belted kingfishers occur in Canada. Overall, currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today remain stable.
Belted kingfishers are top predators in both marine and freshwater aquatic food webs.
Fun facts for kids
- Kingfishers are adept at fishing, and are named after the Anglo-Saxon word that means "king of the fishes."
- The Belted kingfisher appeared on the Canadian 1986 series $5 note.
- Belted kingfishers sometimes have swallows sharing their tunnels, which dig out small rooms in the tunnel walls.
- Belted kingfishers dive into the water to avoid hawks eating them.
- Pleistocene fossils of this species from 600,000 years ago have been discovered in Florida, Virginia, Texas and Tennessee. The oldest known fossil of the kingfisher genus was found in Florida, in Alachua County, and is 2 million years old.
- A group of Belted kingfishers is called a "crown" or a "rattle" of kingfishers.