The River Rat of the Bird World Belted Kingfisher

  • Belted Kingfisher photo by Martin Zonnenberg
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by Gerry Smith, Consulting Ornithologist

Its striking colors and loud rattling call make this species hard to miss as it flies along our shorelines. The only member of its tribe found throughout North America, this uncommon, but widely distributed bird occurs wherever suitable habitat exists. And as its name indicates, it feeds mostly on small and medium sized fish procured by shallow water dives.

We usually see them and hear their loud rattle call as they fly above the water’s surface or perch on an overhanging branch. Rarely found far from water, this species is a consummate “river rat” of the bird world. 

Spring migrant kingfishers usually arrive in the North Country in late March and early April. Males often precede females by a week or two, making their presence known by loud arguments as they compete for prime breeding space. Loud rattle calls abound as two to three engage in vigorous chases, swooping and diving on each other, above the water’s surface. This spring jousting determines territorial ownership rights, but occasional loud vigorous disputes re-emerge throughout the breeding season. After females arrive and pairing occurs, mates settle down to raise the next generation.

Critical resources necessary for reproductive success include an adequate supply of suitable sized finned prey, a site for a nest burrow and shoreline perches to hunt from. The pair will dig a nest hole in a shoreline bank, preferably under an overhang, that is deep enough to protect the five to seven eggs. Eggs are incubated mostly by the female, and hatching occurs in a little over three weeks.

A constantly hungry brood will keep both parents very busy feeding the three to four young that usually survive. Fledging from the burrow after about a month, these youngsters are wonderfully comical in appearance. They have a decidedly unkempt look about them, with their outsized heads and bills that seem too large for their bodies. Their often ruffled crests and awkward perching and flight style appear very funny to us. The young are fed by their parents for about another month before being totally on their own.

Adults and young usually begin dispersing by mid-August with southbound migration starting by the end of the month. Most have left our area by late October. A few may attempt to overwinter here each year with variable success. In mild winters some of these lingering individuals survive, while most are sorted out of the gene pool by harsh winters. Our region is currently at the northern edge of the species’ normal winter range which extends south to Panama and the Caribbean. Come March most of our breeders will leave their winter haunts headed north to enliven North Country shorelines for another summer.



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