Kingfishers are world-class anglers

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                       A perched Belted Kingfisher rests between attempts to catch fish along the waterfront at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

Fishing is a favorite pastime for many people, who like nothing better than to spend a lazy summer afternoon trying their luck at their favorite fishing spot.

There’s also an angling counterpart among our feathered friends. The Belted Kingfisher’s nature as an angler rules out this bird visiting feeders in the backyard, but that doesn’t mean you’re unlikely to see this bird. With a little strategic effort, an observation of a Belted Kingfisher is fairly easy to obtain, especially during the summer months. If you live near a stream, pond, river or other body of water, you have probably been fortunate enough to observe a Belted Kingfisher as it completes its daily routine.

If you are a fishing enthusiast yourself, you’ve likely shared some favorite fishing holes with this bird. The Belted Kingfisher is patient in its pursuit of fish. The birds prefer to perch on an exposed branch or a wire that overlooks a body of water that offers ample fishing opportunities. The Belted Kingfisher, however, is capable of hovering in place in order to spot and then capture its prey in an impressive plunge and lunge into the water.

Most of my observations of hunting kingfishers have involved the birds in their ambush approach to fishing — perching and diving on the unsuspecting fish. I have on a few occasions, however, also observed kingfishers as they hover over the water in a quest for a meal.

The Belted Kingfisher, like most of its kin, looks to have a head and bill that are slightly too large for the rest of the body. It’s the long, heavy bill that the Belted Kingfisher uses to snatch fish from their watery homes.

A walnut tree with some dead branches overlooking my family’s fish pond is a favorite perching site for visiting Belted Kingfishers. A few Belted Kingfishers become regular visitors almost every spring and summer. In past years, I’ve been delighted by pairs of kingfishers that have brought as many as six of their offspring to hunt around the edges of the pond and creek near my home.

When a Belted Kingfisher does manage to capture a fish — not always a certainty, despite their great skill — the bird will usually fly to a perch where they will beat the fish unconscious before swallowing it. I remember one particular kingfisher that liked to catch fish in the creek and then fly to the corner of the metal garage roof where the bird proceeded to beat senseless the unlucky fish.

Worldwide, there are about 90 species of kingfishers that range in size from the 16-inch-long Laughing Kookaburra of Australia to the tiny African Dwarf Kingfisher, which at four inches in length is smaller than most sparrows. This family of birds is divided into three groupings, the river kingfishers, the tree kingfishers and the water kingfishers.

Despite the name “kingfisher,” not all kingfishers exist on a diet of fish. Some members of the kingfisher family instead prey on other quarry, such as snakes, lizards and insects.

Some interesting common names have been used to identify the world’s kingfishers, including Half-collared Kingfisher, Shining Blue Kingfisher, Blue-eared Kingfisher, Azure Kingfisher, Indigo-banded Kingfisher, Silvery Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, White-bellied Kingfisher, Cerulean Kingfisher, Rufous-backed Kingfisher, Spangled Kookaburra, Rufous-bellied Kookaburra, Shovel-billed Kookaburra, Lilac Kingfisher, Brown-winged Kingfisher, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Great-billed Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Lazuli Kingfisher, Ultramarine Kingfisher, Cinnamon-banded Kingfisher, Sacred Kingfisher, Mewing Kingfisher, Chattering Kingfisher, Glittering Kingfisher, Red-breasted Paradise Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher and Green-and-rufous Kingfisher.

Kingfishers comprise a cosmopolitan family of birds with species present on every continent except Antarctica.

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A depiction of Belted KingfisherS painted by John James Audubon.

The three North American kingfishers, however, are exclusively fish-eaters. The Belted Kingfisher, with a range that spans most of the United States, is the only kingfisher encountered by most Americans.

Two others, the Ringed Kingfisher and the Green Kingfisher, are found in Texas and occasionally in other locations near the Mexican border. The Ringed Kingfisher is similar in appearance to the Belted Kingfisher, but is somewhat larger with a rufous-colored belly. The little Green Kingfisher, not quite nine inches long, has the typical kingfisher appearance, but is green rather than blue on its upperparts.

With the Belted Kingfisher, only the female sports a ring of rufous coloration across her breast. She is an exception to the rule that most male birds are more vividly colored than their female companions.

In her book The Folklore of Birds, Laura C. Martin writes that in some accounts the kingfisher, not the dove, was the second bird Noah released from the ark after the Biblical flood. Instead of looking for land, the kingfisher flew too high and the sun scorched the bird’s feathers. After his setback with the raven and now the kingfisher, Noah made the kingfisher remain on the ark’s deck to catch its food from the water.

Halcyon days, a term meaning a period of peaceful quiet, is derived from Greek legend. According to the legend, the god Zeus restrained the storms during the period when the kingfishers nest. The scientific name for the Belted Kingfisher is Megaceryle alcyon, a variation on the term “halcyon.”

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                                                                                                          Belted Kingfisher sits on a wire to scan for fish.

Belted Kingfishers nest by excavating a cavity in a dirt bank, usually near water. The tunnel slopes upward from the entrance, and may extend as far as eight feet into the bank.

Again in Martin’s book, there is an account of a Cherokee legend about how the kingfisher acquired its angling lifestyle. The poor bird wanted to be a waterbird, but lacked the equipment to make a living at fishing. The other animals convened a council and, in pity for the kingfisher’s plight, endowed the bird with its spear-like bill. Since that time, the bird has been known as “king of the fishers.”

The “king of the fishers” is indeed to be envied by human anglers. Although not successful in every attempt, the Belted Kingfisher is certainly exceptional in its pursuit of fish. According to John Eastman in his book, Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh, the Belted Kingfisher typically captures about 10 fish per day.

If you want to observe this bird for yourself, stake out a pond or section of river. You’re not likely to have to wait for long before you are rewarded with an observation. In my experience, however, the Belted Kingfisher is somewhat shy and wary of humans, so observe from a respectful distance or you’re likely to scare off the bird, which will depart giving its rattling call that sounds so much like the sound of annoyance on its part.

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