Photo: Mark Boyd/Audubon Photography Awards

Belted Kingfisher

Megaceryle alcyon

The Belted Kingfisher is often first noticed by its wild rattling call as it flies over rivers or lakes. It may be seen perched on a high snag, or hovering on rapidly beating wings, then plunging headfirst into the water to grab a fish. Found almost throughout North America at one season or another, it is the only member of its family to be seen in most areas north of Mexico.
Conservation status Recent surveys indicate declines in population. May be vulnerable to loss of nesting sites and to disturbance during breeding season.
Family Kingfishers
Habitat Streams, lakes, bays, coasts; nests in banks. During winter and migration, may be found in almost any waterside habitat, including the edges of small streams and ponds, large rivers and lakes, marshes, estuaries, and rocky coastlines; seems to require only clear water for fishing. During breeding season, more restricted to areas with suitable dirt banks for nesting holes.
The Belted Kingfisher is often first noticed by its wild rattling call as it flies over rivers or lakes. It may be seen perched on a high snag, or hovering on rapidly beating wings, then plunging headfirst into the water to grab a fish. Found almost throughout North America at one season or another, it is the only member of its family to be seen in most areas north of Mexico.
Photo Gallery
  • adult male
  • adult female
  • juvenile female
  • adult
  • adult female
  • adult female
Feeding Behavior

Forages by plunging headfirst into water, capturing fish near surface with bill. Watches for fish from branch, wire, rock, or other perch above water, or may hover above water before diving. Bones, scales, and other indigestible parts of prey are coughed up later as pellets.


Eggs

6-7, sometimes 5-8. White. Incubation is by both sexes, 22-24 days. Female incubates at night, with male taking over early in morning; male may or may not do less of incubation than female. Young: Both parents feed young, at first giving them partially digested fish, later whole fish. Male may make more feeding visits than female. Young depart from nest 27-29 days after hatching, are fed by parents for about another 3 weeks. 1 brood per year, perhaps sometimes 2 in south.


Young

Both parents feed young, at first giving them partially digested fish, later whole fish. Male may make more feeding visits than female. Young depart from nest 27-29 days after hatching, are fed by parents for about another 3 weeks. 1 brood per year, perhaps sometimes 2 in south.

Diet

Mostly small fish. Typically feeds on small fish, usually those less than 4-5" long. Also eats crayfish, frogs, tadpoles, aquatic insects. Occasionally takes prey away from water, including small mammals, young birds, lizards. Reported to eat berries at times.


Nesting

In courtship display, male brings fish, feeds it to female. Nest site is in steep or vertical dirt bank, usually with higher content of sand than clay. Both sexes take part in digging a long horizontal tunnel with nest chamber at end. Tunnel is generally 3-6' long and usually slopes upward from entrance. Rarely nests in tree cavity. Usually no lining added to nest chamber, but debris and undigested fish bones and scales may accumulate.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

A few may overwinter as far north as water remains open, including southern coast of Alaska. Some from North America migrate as far south as Central America, West Indies, northern South America. Migrants may tend to follow rivers, lakeshores, coastlines.

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Migration

A few may overwinter as far north as water remains open, including southern coast of Alaska. Some from North America migrate as far south as Central America, West Indies, northern South America. Migrants may tend to follow rivers, lakeshores, coastlines.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Loud, penetrating rattle, given on the wing and when perched.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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