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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Belted Kingfisher is a sure sign of good fishing for stream anglers

The Belted Kinkfisher (Photo by Brian Kushner, Audubon Society)

The Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) is a good luck charm for anglers, most often observed along wooded streams.

When you see one of these distinctive birds perched on a snag, or flying overhead, it’s a sure sign the fishing must be good.

That’s because this water bird, easily identified by its slate blue and white plumage, and a loud rattling call, is looking for a fish dinner too.

Range and Distribution

The Belted Kingfisher is considered a permanent, year-round resident, that breeds in Kentucky, and is most common in the central and western two-thirds of the state, less frequent east of the Interstate-75.

The Belted Kingfisher’s head is large, with a shaggy crest of feathers. (Photo by Charles Wheeler, Audubon Society)

“Their occurrence is limited by the availability of suitable nest sites,” wrote Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr., in The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas.

This species may be more abundant today in some areas of the state than a century or more ago. This is because road cuts and other dirt banks made by human construction have created nesting habitat.

Belted Kingfishers in Kentucky don’t migrate but during times of severe weather, when snow and ice cover waterways, many local birds may move southward to find open water.

In the Lower 48 states, this species is absent only in the desert Southwest, southern Louisiana and southern Florida, Maine, northern Minnesota, North Dakota, and northern Montana.

The two other species of kingfishers found in North America, but not present in Kentucky, are the Green Kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana) and the Ringed Kingfisher (Megaceryle torquata).

Worldwide, the Kingfisher family, Alcedinidae, has 114 species, most often found in tropical regions of Africa, Asia, and islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Size and Coloration

A stocky, medium-sized bird that measures 11 to 14 inches in length, the Belted Kingfisher has a wingspan of about 19 to 23 inches.

Adults weigh about five to six ounces, with adult females slightly larger than adult males.

Plumage coloration is similar for both sexes, but the female has a reddish-brown (rufous) band across the upper belly that extends down the flanks.

Both sexes have a slate blue head, large white collar, a large blue band on the breast, and white underparts. The back and wings are slate blue with black feather tips, and small white dots.

The Belted Kingfisher’s head is large, with a shaggy crest of feathers. Its long, heavy bill is black with a grey base.

Food Habits

(Photo by Evelyn Garcia, Audubon Society)

Hovering in mid-air, on the wing or from a perch, the Belted Kingfisher dives headfirst into the water to grab a small fish (usually 4 to 5 inches in length) near the surface.

Like owls, the Belted Kingfisher swallows its prey whole and coughs up indigestible parts (bones and scales) later in pellet form.

Their diet may also include crayfish, frogs, tadpoles and aquatic insects.

Nesting and Reproduction

In courtship, the male brings fish to the female and feeds her.

Nesting activity in Kentucky begins in late March to early April, and egg-laying continues into mid-May or early June. By early July family groups are often observed.

For a bird that spends most of the time foraging from the timber along the banks of streams and lakes, it seems like a quirk of nature that the Belted Kingfisher doesn’t nest in trees.

Both sexes work together to excavate a nesting burrow in a high bank of dirt and sand, digging a horizontal tunnel six feet in length that slopes upward slightly from the entrance, and ends with an enlarged chamber.

Females lay about six white eggs, and incubation is by both sexes for 22 to 24 days. The female incubates at night, with the male taking over early in the morning.

Both parents feed the young, at first giving them partially digested fish, later whole fish.

The young depart the nest about 28 days after hatching and are fed by their parents for about another three weeks.

Pairs hatch off one brood per year, sometimes two in the southern states.

The Belted Kingfisher is a bird that every angler can relate to because we all know just how tough it can be to catch a fish sometimes. We might learn a thing or two from this local fisher, who spends every day, all day, on the water.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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