The first time I saw this bird, it wasn’t even illustrated in the standard North American field guides yet.
I was 17 years old, an obsessed teen birder a thousand miles from home, hitch-hiking around south Texas in pursuit of new birds. Back then, the field guides showed two kinds of kingfishers: Belted Kingfisher, found at the water’s edge all across the continent, and the little Green Kingfisher, a Texas specialty. But word through the birding grapevine was that a third species, Ringed Kingfisher, was being seen on a wild stretch of the Rio Grande just downriver from Falcon Dam.
It wasn’t easy to get there by hitch-hiking. It took a whole series of short rides and long walks for me to reach that riverbank. Once I arrived, though, and once I finally spotted the Ringed Kingfisher, there was no mistaking it. The bird came flying high overhead, with a loud, measured tchack! . . . tchack! . . . tchack! . . . as if to announce itself. Just downriver from where I stood, it swooped up to a high branch and let loose with a wild, clattering rattle, raising and shaking a shaggy crest on its head. The bird wore stunning, rich colors, all deep chestnut and blue, and it was huge—it seemed twice the size of a Belted Kingfisher. I stared, open-mouthed in awe, for a minute, and then said to myself: “It’s like a King Kongfisher!”
That was in 1972. At the time, only a few individuals edged across the border near Falcon Dam. But in the years since, Ringed Kingfishers have spread all up and down the lower Rio Grande Valley, from Del Rio to Brownsville, and they’re now hard to miss on even a brief birding visit. They are well established north into central Texas, often showing up along the river in downtown Austin. Wandering birds have reached northern and western Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and even western Florida.
So this big kingfisher is now a staple of U.S. birding, pictured in all the field guides, expected on every south Texas trip. But why did it invade northward in the first place?
Six species of kingfishers live in the Americas. There are places in South America where you can find five of them living side by side. How do five kinds of kingfishers manage to coexist? Ace ornithologist Van Remsen studied this question and found that they separated out by size—large, medium, and small—and by habitat, with three species favoring open water and two living in deep shade. The smallest kingfishers tended to perch lowest, dropping into the water and taking the smallest fish. Ringed Kingfisher, the largest species, chose the highest perches and dove to catch the biggest fish. In tropical waters with a good diversity of fish near the surface, it was possible for fish-catching birds to coexist by specializing on slightly different hunting niches and prey sizes.
How big are those biggest fish nabbed by the Ringed Kingfisher? Up to about eight inches long at the most. In other words, nothing that would be a record catch for a human angler, but this bird also weighs less than a pound. After diving face-first into the water and grabbing a fish in its bill, it has to be able to lift off from the surface and fly away, and there are limits to what it can carry.
South Texas has three coexisting kingfishers in winter, when the medium-sized Belted arrives to join the small Green and large Ringed Kingfisher. (A fourth species, the medium-sized Amazon Kingfisher, has been seen a few times, and one was in Laredo at the beginning of December this year.) In summer, all the Belted Kingfishers retreat northward. They don’t nest any farther south than north-central Texas, and surveys suggest that their numbers have been declining in that region in recent decades. So are Ringed Kingfishers moving north into Texas to fill a niche as Belted Kingfishers become scarcer there? Possibly, but no one has found evidence to back that up. (Besides, would the mighty Kong be held at bay by a mere swarm of Belted adversaries? I don’t think so.)
Could the northward spread of this largest kingfisher be a reflection of a warming climate? That’s a reasonable theory. Many bird species have gone through a northward expansion recently. But unlike many tropical birds, Ringed Kingfishers don’t need hot weather to thrive. They’re widespread in the temperate zone of South America, all the way to the southern end of the continent. I’ve seen a few in southernmost Argentina, fishing the cold waters of Tierra del Fuego, in landscapes and temperatures that reminded me of Alaska. So it doesn’t make sense to think the Texas climate ever would have been too chilly for them.
In the end, I don’t have any good explanation for why this species has invaded Texas, or why it was absent there in the past. All I can say is that this bird that I still call the “King Kongfisher” is a welcome invader, a strikingly beautiful bird, and an exciting addition to our birdlife north of the border.
(Kenn Kaufman's Notebook is a regular column featuring original artwork and essays by Kaufman, a field editor for Audubon, and a world-renowned bird expert, author, and environmentalist.)