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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Belted kingfishers nest in tunnels that they burrow into exposed soft cliffs, streambanks and riverbanks above flowing waters where they feed. © Jack R. Bartholmai

August 2008

A bolt from the blue

Cast an eye and lend an ear to the kingfish of feathered anglers.

Anita Carpenter


Belted kingfishers nest in tunnels that they burrow into exposed soft cliffs, streambanks and riverbanks above flowing waters where they feed.

© Jack R. Bartholmai

A raucous rattle reverberates across the quiet bay. I look up to see a belted kingfisher flying close to shore below the tree line, moving from one overhanging branch to another exposed perch. After a graceful landing, "the king" once again assumes a motionless pose on his wooded throne. Leaning forward almost to the point of tipping over, this bird with a shaggy oversized head and big beak focuses on the water below. When it spots an unsuspecting fish, the patient kingfisher bursts into action diving from its branch and folding its wings back just before its streamlined body pierces the surface. It grabs the unlucky fish and with a few splashy wing beats lifts its catch out of the water and back to the branch. The bird devours its tasty meal headfirst and whole.

A belted kingfisher doesn't always fish from a perch. Often it hovers about 50 feet over the water, wings beating furiously and occasionally dropping down a few feet to focus on the pond or stream. Once it spots a fish, the kingfisher instantly changes from hover mode to dive mode and plunges in for the kill, though not every dive is successful.

Of the 86 mostly tropical species of kingfishers, only the 13-inch belted kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon, plies Wisconsin's lakes and rivers. It's an easy bird to identify with its big blue-gray shaggy crest atop a proportionally oversized head on a smallish body. Its large black beak is a formidable fish-catching tool. Blue-gray dominates the head, back, wings and tail of the chunky bird. The conspicuous blue-gray breast band traverses a snow-white belly. A white neck collar separates the blue-gray head from its back. This is one of the few North American birds where the female is more colorful than the male. She sports a rusty-red belly band and flanks that are often hidden behind folded wings. Believe it or not, the distinct colors look inconspicuous viewed up through a green backdrop of branches and sky.

Belted kingfishers live solitary lives outside of the late spring nesting season. Pair bonds form after the male establishes a territory. After mating, the formidable task of nest building begins. Kingfisher nests are long, horizontal tunnels excavated in high, exposed vertical sites like riverbanks or sand and gravel quarries where there is water nearby. A good place to search for kingfisher nests is among active colonies of rough-winged or bank swallows. The swallow nest holes are about 1-2 inches and the kingfisher is three to four inches across. The tunnel-like cavity typically is burrowed about three to four feet into the bank but may extend as far as 15 feet before ending in a nesting cavity that is protected from predators. The long tunnel means a lot of digging for a bird with weak feet. Consequently, kingfishers may return to the same nest site for several years.

Within the 10-inch nest chamber, the female lays an average of six to seven white eggs. Both male and female birds share time incubating the eggs for about 23 days. When it's time to switch from one parent to the other, the kingfisher on the outside "rattles" to alert its partner to leave the nest before the partner on the outside enters.

After hatching, the young are fed regurgitated food and spend about a month in the dark burrow before emerging. They remain with their parents for another three weeks learning and perfecting their fishing skills, after which time they are on their own. The family breaks up and each go their separate ways. Only one brood is raised per year.

Belted kingfishers may be seen any time of year. Though most of these birds migrate to better fishing spots in winter, a few remain here as long as open water is flowing below dams or on large rivers where the fishing is good year-round. Unfortunately, fish hatcheries are not immune to predation from the hungry opportunistic kingfishers. So year-round, I'm always looking and listening for the shaggy crested bird with the big rattle. Even if I don't always see it, the loud rattle is music to my ears and a welcome addition to Wisconsin's natural chorus.

Anita Carpenter searches high and low for signs of Wisconsin wildlife year-round.