Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)
|Also known as:||eastern belted kingfisher|
|Size||Length: 28 – 33 cm (2)|
Male weight: 113 – 173 g (2)
Female weight: 138 – 178 g (2)
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The belted kingfisher is one of the most widespread land birds in North America, occupying a diverse range of aquatic habitats (3). One of few bird species in which the female is more brightly coloured than the male, in addition to the ashy-blue upperparts, white collar and broad, bluish-grey breast band, the female belted kingfisher has a chestnut band across the lower breast and streaks of chestnut on the sides (2) (3) (4) (5). However, perhaps the most distinctive feature of this bird is its conspicuous, double-pointed crest set upon the large, blue head. The juvenile differs from the adult in its darker crest, blue breast band mixed with chestnut and wing feathers flecked with white (2) (3). Like other members of the kingfisher family, this medium-sized species is short-necked, stout-bodied and has small, weak feet. The bill is straight, long and strong and flattened from the sides - an adaptation to its fish-eating lifestyle (6). An extremely vocal species, the belted kingfisher makes a number of sounds, including a harsh rattle, which is used in territorial disputes and a warbling call emitted by the female during courtship (3) (4) (5).
The belted kingfisher has a wide range across North America, Central America and the West Indies to northern South America. It only breeds in North America, but during the winter, birds migrate from colder, more northern latitudes to temperate or tropical regions (3).
The belted kingfisher occupies both coastal and inland aquatic habitats. During the breeding season, it is most often found near streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and estuaries with near vertical earth banks in which it excavates its nest (3) (7). This fish-eating bird favours waters with little or no vegetation, allowing its prey to be more easily spotted. Outside of the breeding season, migrating belted kingfishers will follow major waterways to occupy tropical habitats, such as mangroves, and other costal areas (3).
Most active in the early morning, late afternoon and early evening, this sit-and-wait predator largely hunts from an exposed perch on a tree, pylon or even a pier, which offers clear views over its feeding territory (2) (3). The belted kingfisher is a proficient hunter of fish, and once its prey is sighted, it will hover briefly, up to 15 metres above the water’s surface, before diving vertically into the water, spreading its wings to break its fall. The belted kingfisher catches its target in its long beak with a pincer-like movement, before retracting its neck, turning its body and flying up through the water to take to flight (2) (3) (6). Its prey is taken back to the perch and killed or stunned by repeated blows, allowing this kingfisher to swallow the whole fish head first (2) (6). Although it principally eats small fish up to 14 centimetres long, the belted kingfisher will also eat crustaceans, molluscs, insects, amphibians, reptiles, young birds, small mammals and even small berries (2) (3).
Although solitary for most of the year, from around the start of April the male belted kingfisher selects a nest site which the females visit (2) (3). After noisy courtship displays in which the male chases the female while calling loudly, breeding partners pair up (2) (3). To cement the bond between the pair, the male perches beside the female, with both birds performing unusual semi-circle movements along the length of a perch, before the female is fed a fish gift (2) (3). Both birds construct the tunnel nest in the wall of a dirt bank, with the nest slightly sloping upwards to prevent water from entering, and a territory around the nest is fiercely defended from other kingfishers, with any intruders aggressively repelled (2) (4). Between April and July the clutch of 5 to 8 eggs is laid and subsequently incubated by both the male and female for around 22 to 24 days (4). The chicks hatch naked and blind and are intensively cared for by both parents for several days after hatching. After some 27 to 29 days in the nest, the young birds are capable of limited flight and will join the parents in foraging around the territory, although they continue to be fed by the parents for a further 3 weeks, until which time they become fully independent (2) (3).
The belted kingfisher is one of the most abundant and widespread land birds in North America. However, the population is likely decreasing in some areas due to a combination of disturbance and persecution (2) (3) (4) (8). Before the species was afforded greater protection, it was shot and trapped as it was perceived as a threat to fish hatcheries and commercial trout streams. At Lake Michigan alone more than 400 birds were killed in a single season; however, there is evidence to suggest that outside fish farms there is little justification in such persecution as this kingfisher largely preys on non-game and non-commercial fish species (2) (3) (9). The belted kingfisher is also vulnerable to human disturbance and may abandon nests during the breeding season if disturbed, although it has benefited from the excavation of gravel pits and construction works creating additional nesting sites, and, consequently, has increased and expanded in some areas (2) (3).
Despite being a relatively common species, there is still very little known about certain aspects of the belted kingfisher’s biology and what measures must be taken to ensure its conservation. Water quality, cover and the availability of nesting sites all appear to limit its breeding range; however, it is not entirely clear as to what principle factors are causing its decline in some areas. Further research is required if informed conservation measures are to be developed (3).
To find out more about the conservation of birds in North America, see:
The American Bird Conservancy:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
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- Crustaceans: diverse group of animals with jointed limbs and a hard chitinous exoskeleton characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (parts of the mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps and barnacles.
- Incubation: the act of incubating eggs, that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
- Molluscs: a diverse group of invertebrates, mainly marine, that have one or all of the following; a horny, toothed ribbon in the mouth (the radula), a shell covering the upper surface of the body, and a mantle or mantle cavity with a type of gill. Includes snails, slugs, shellfish, octopuses and squid.
- Territorial: describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (July, 2010)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. and Sargatal, J. (2001) Handbook of Birds of the World. Volume 6: Mousebirds to hornbills. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
- Kelly, J.F., Bridge, E.S. and Hamas, M.J. (2009) Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Birds of North America Online.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (July, 2010)
- Bond, J. (1993) Birds of the West Indies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
- Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Brooks, R.P. and Davis, W.J. (1987) Habitat selection by breeding belted kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon). American Midland Naturalist, 117: 63-70.
BirdLife International (July, 2010)
- Salyer II, J.C. and Lagler, K.F. (1949) The Eastern belted kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon alcyon (Linnaeus), in relation to fish management. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 76: 97-117.