Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Belted Kingfisher: An Antisocial Hammerhead

Belted Kingfisher, male. He sports but one band of blue.

I was thinking about one of my favorite birds today, the Belted Kingfisher. That's because I penned an article about these raucous fish-eaters for a monthly column that I write for my employer, the Ohio Division of Wildlife. You can read the piece below.
Speaking of the Division of Wildlife, we're now on Facebook, and the odds are good that you are, too. If so, look us up and "like" us. There's lots of good stuff there.

On Ohio’s Wild Side: Belted Kingfisher: An Antisocial Hammerhead

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Many a streamside stroller has had their contemplative immersion in nature shattered by a sudden eruption of loud machine gun-like rattling. There’s nothing like an irate belted kingfisher to dismember the tranquility of a peaceful riparian forest.

Kingfishers are virulently antisocial, and the pair only comes together for as long as it takes to mate, create a nest site, and raise the young. Once those tasks are complete, they go their separate ways, but still claim favored waters and defend their territory. It’s their ill-tempered disposition that causes them to rattle at interlopers, such as us, that intrude on their turf.

The kingfisher family contains 92 species, but only the belted occurs in Ohio. Kingfishers are fantastically diverse and universally interesting. The tiny American pygmy kingfisher – a tropical species – is only a nip over five inches in length, and weighs just 18 grams. That’s about the size of a junco. A jarring contrast is the massive ringed kingfisher, another southerner that ranges north into Texas. It is 16 inches long and weighs 315 grams; equivalent in mass to about 17 pygmy kingfishers.

Belted kingfishers are birds of the water, through and through. One commonality with nearly all kingfishers is that they plunge-dive for fish, as does our belted kingfisher. They carefully watch the water’s surface from a conspicuous perch, waiting for some living sushi to appear. When a suitable target is located, the kingfisher launches from its lookout and hovers, helicopter like, over the prey. When all coordinates mesh, the bird drops headfirst towards the water, like a feathered Greg Louganis with a bad attitude.

Just before the kingfisher strikes the water, it closes its eyes, and a millisecond later snaps up the fish in its pincer-like bill. Thrusting itself clear of the water, the fisher-bird returns to its favored perch and pounds its catch headfirst into the branch. Once the fish is stunned into stillness, it’s swallowed, always headfirst.

Another of the quirks of belted kingfishers is that the girls are flashier than the boys. That’s certainly not the norm in the bird world. The male sports a blue belt that spans its breast, but not only is the female adorned with the blue stripe, she’s got a lovely contrasting cinnamon ring across her front. Belted kingfishers are unmistakable among our birds, and not just because of their colored bands and peculiar behavior. A stubby tail juts from the plump body, and their legs are so short as to be nearly invisible. But it’s the noggin that really stands out. The kingfisher’s bull-like head appears to be nearly half the mass of the bird, and it’s topped with a shaggy crest – sort of like a bad Mohawk haircut. The whole assemblage is tipped with a large, ferocious chisel of a bill.

Even their choice of abodes is unusual. Kingfishers excavate a tunnel into a steep earthen bank, preferably along a waterway. Their subterranean lair may extend for nearly 15 feet, and terminates in a chamber where the eggs are laid.

Next time you find yourself along a lake or stream, watch for kingfishers. You probably won’t have to look hard – they’ll give a shout out.

Jim McCormac
Ohio Division of Wildlife
Belted Kingfisher, female. She one-ups the males in the looks department, but has every bit as bad a disposition.


Birding is Fun! said...

Very well written. It captures the excitement and admiration I feel every time I see a Belted Kingfisher.

Randy Kreager said...

Great article, Jim! We kayak from Elmore back to our home, 3 miles east, on the Portage River. We see several of these comical little characters on every run. It also is common to look out our back windows and one of them perched on a branch over the Portage.

OpposableChums said...

Funny: a Belted Kingfisher flew over my car this morning as I drove (yes, past a pond) on my way into Manhattan. Can't mistake THAT silhouette.

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you all for the comments, and glad you liked the piece. Kingfishers are without doubt one of our more interesting birds!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you could tell me why I only seem to spot these in the cold months? I don't think I've ever seen one in summer. But see them a few times a week during the colder months.