[Published in 1940: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 176: 111-129]
Our North American representative of the large and interesting kingfisher family is not so gaudily colored as some of the foreign species and is intermediate in size between the largest and the smallest members of the family, but it is an interesting bird, striking in appearance and voice, and unique in form. Its long, heavy bill and its large head with its prominent crest, contrasting with its diminutive feet and its short tail, seem entirely out of balance and give it a top-heavy appearance. But its peculiar proportions and structure are beautifully adapted for the life it leads; its large beak and head form an effective spearhead for use in its deep plunges, and they are well built to stand the shocks of frequent diving. Unlike the osprey, it does not need to use its feet in fishing; but the short legs and shovel-like feet are most useful in shoveling the loose soil from its nesting burrows, after it has been loosened by the powerful beak.
The belted kingfisher, as a species, covers nearly all the North American Continent, breeding from northern Alaska and central Labrador southward to the southern border of the United States. Being essentially a fish-eating bird, its haunts are naturally near large or small bodies of water. It is common on the seacoast and estuaries, where it may be seen perched on some stake or pier, watching for its prey; or along the shore of a lake or pond, its favorite outlook may be the branch of a tree overhanging the water; I believe that it prefers to perch on a dead or leafless branch, where its view is unobstructed. Trout brooks, especially swift and rocky mountain streams, are favorite resorts, where its loud, rattling cry is often heard, as it flies up and down, patrolling its chosen fishing ground and driving away any intruders of its own species; it prefers to play the role of the lone fisherman.
Courtship.--Very little seems to be known about the kingfisher's courtship. Laurence B. Potter says in his notes: "Sometimes I have watched as many as five or six high up in the air, tumbling and wheeling about, uttering their harsh rattle; they appear to be doing it merely for the joy of flying, or it may be their courtship antics." Francis H. Allen writes to me: "From courting birds--a group of them--I have heard a mewing note uttered in rapid succession, almost if not quite as loud as the familiar rattle of the species. These same birds--or two of them at least--also kept up a continual, prolonged rattle."
Nesting.--The nest of the belted kingfisher is almost invariably in a burrow in a sandy, clay, or gravelly bank, excavated by the birds themselves. The site chosen is preferably near water and as near the favorite fishing grounds of the birds as a suitable bank can be found. But such banks are not always to be found in the most convenient places, so the birds are forced to nest in any bank they can find, often at a long distance from any water, such as the embankment of a railroad cut, the cliff of a sand dune, or a bank by a roadside where sand or gravel has been taken out for grading. On Cape Cod, the sandpits made while sanding cranberry bogs are favorite sites. The burrow may be at any height from the base of the cliff, depending on the height of the cliff, but it is usually not more than 2 or 3 feet from the top, though Major Bendire (1895) says that it is sometimes as much as 20 feet below the top of the cliff. The burrow extends inward, sloping slightly upward, for varying distances, usually from 3 to 6 feet, but sometimes as much as 10 or even 15 feet; as kingfishers sometimes use the same burrow for several years in succession, it may be that the deepest burrows are the oldest and have been extended from year to year to provide a fresh, clean nest. The burrow is usually straight, or nearly so, but often curves somewhat, or makes a more or less abrupt turn to the right or left. One that I dug out ran straight in for 3 feet, made an abrupt turn to the left, and then made a reverse curve, so that the nest was only about 2 feet from the face of the cliff. The entrance and the tunnel itself are not quite circular, being usually about 3 1/2 to 4 inches wide and 3 to 3 1/2 inches high; an occupied burrow can generally be recognized by the footmarks of the bird, a central ridge with a furrow on each side of it, made by the bird as it enters or leaves the nest. The nest is placed in an enlarged chamber, which may be directly at the end of the tunnel, or a little to one side of it, and usually a little above the level of the tunnel. The chamber varies considerably in size and shape but is approximately circular and dome-shaped; it is usually 10 to 12 inches in diameter and 6 to 7 inches in height. Often the eggs are laid on the bare sand or gravel which probably indicates that the nest is a new one, or that the eggs are fresh; oftener, perhaps, the nesting chamber is lined with bits of clean, white fish bones, fish scales, or fragments of the shells of crustaceans; these, I believe, are the remains of ejected pellets and indicate that the nest has been previously occupied by young birds or that the female has been fed on the nest for some time; there is no evidence to indicate that the birds ever bring in such material intentionally.
Bendire (1895) writes:
The time required to dig out a burrow depends largely on the nature of the soil to be removed, taking sometimes two or three weeks, but generally much less. I have personally seen an instance where a pair of these birds excavated a new burrow in a rather friable clay bank near Fort Lapwai, Idaho, to a depth of 5 feet (estimated measurement) in a little over three days. How they managed to dig so rapidly, considering their short and weak-looking feet, with which they must remove the greater part of the material, has always been a mystery to me, and I would not believe them capable of accomplishing such an amount of work had I not seen it done. When not disturbed the same nesting site is resorted to from year to year. Sometimes the male burrows an additional hole near the occupied nesting site, usually not over 3 feet deep, to which it retires to feed and pass the night.
Dr. Thomas S. Roberts (1932) published the following account on authority of Miss Frances Densmore, of Red Wing, Minn.:
On April 25, 1928, I found a pair of Kingfishers digging their tunnel at the top of a high cut about a foot below the surface, just where the black loam met and under the sand, some one hundred feet, or thereabouts, above the water. They both dug, taking turn and turn about, except when she thought he hadn't stayed in long enough and sent him back. After watching them for an hour or more I formed a theory as to how they managed it. One would go in and work for two or three minutes and then push the dirt ahead of it to the entrance and fly out over it. No dirt ever came out with the bird that had been digging, but when the other went in there was a veritable fountain spurting out for nearly a minute after it entered. Then this subsided and more digging was done by the bird that had cleared the hole. They kept very close to their schedule of two or three minutes each. On this day the dirt they brought out was sand, but on the 27th it was black loam from above, and I decided that they had got back to their "sitting room." On May 1 they weren't working and, as both were in and out at the same time, I judged that there was room to turn and that they would call it done.
Dr. A. K. Fisher wrote to Major Bendire (1895) as follows:
On June 6, 1882, the writer found two nests of the Kingfisher in the side of a railroad cut near Croton Lake, Westchester County, New York. The burrows were placed in a bank not over 7 feet above the roadbed and within 18 inches of the top. That of the first one ran in about 7 feet and turned to the right as it entered the nesting chamber. The seven fresh eggs were placed in a nest of coarse grass, which, although rather scanty, covered the floor of the cavity on all sides. The burrow of the second one extended about 4 1/2 feet, and, like the other previously mentioned, turned toward the right as the expanded nesting cavity was reached. The nest, which was quite elaborate, was composed wholly of fish scales and bones, arranged in a compact, saucer-shaped mass. The writer made a tunnel from the top of the bank so as to intercept the burrow as it entered the nesting cavity. Viewed through this hole, the nest was a beautiful affair. The scales, which looked as if made of frosted silver, formed a delicate setting for the six pure white eggs lying in the center, and by the projected light made a most effective picture. On two occasions, near Sing Sing, New York, the writer found the Kingfisher and Rough-winged Swallow using burrows having a common entrance. It is probably in each case that the swallow had commenced its diverging burrow after the larger bird completed its work.
A few cases have been recorded of the kingfisher nesting in other cavities, where suitable sandbanks were not available. Mr. Forbush (1927) says: "Mr. Herbert F. Moulton of Ware, Massachusetts, tells me that he found a kingfisher's nest in a plowed field on a hillside. The entrance was made in a 'dead furrow.'" Arthur H. Howell (1932) says: "Baynard (1913) writes that in Alachua County [Florida] the Kingfisher nests early in April in holes in dead trees or stubs over water. He states, also [verbally], that he once found a nest at Clearwater, 4 feet above water in a leaning stub, the entrance hole being on the under side; this nest contained 4 eggs on May 6."
Beyer, Allison, and Kopman (1908), referring to Louisiana, say:
The character of the nest varies greatly with different conditions of soil. On the coast it is content with such elevations as can be found on the shores, and the burrow is sometimes scarcely more than a pocket in the clayey banks; in the upper districts, the site is often far from water, and the soft, coarse-grained soil renders easy the excavation of a burrow five or six feet deep, enlarged at the end, and often partly lined with leaves and pine straw; and finally, a unique condition exists in the extensive gum-swamps in the lake region of the southeast, where the land--always submerged--is perfectly flat, and nothing stands above water except innumerable trees and stumps of Nyssa; the nest is placed in the top of a decaying stump, with no attempt at excavation.
But tree-nesting is not wholly confined to the southern swamps, for Dr. George M. Sutton (1928) writes:
On May 27th, 1927, while observing Chimney Swifts at Bethany, Brooke County, West Virginia, I saw a Kingfisher fly rapidly across an open field from a near-by deep pool in Buffalo Creek. Wondering that it should thus cross overland, I watched it as it flew to a large, dead sycamore, not far from me, and disappeared in a hole at the end of a short, thick, horizontal stub. Upon going to the tree I heard the buzzing cries of young birds. Shortly thereafter the male parent flew away as the female came in. The nest was located about ten feet from the ground in a large cavity near the juncture of the bough and the main trunk. The young birds were lying about seven feet from the entrance. The cavity was almost as dark as a bank burrow would have been. It is odd that the Kingfishers chose such a site for their nest, since earthen banks admirably suited to their nests were available along the creek.
Eggs.--The number of eggs laid by the eastern belted kingfisher varies ordinarily from five to eight, the commonest numbers being 6 and 7; on rare occasions as many as 11 or 14 eggs or young have been found in a nest. If the first set of eggs is taken, the birds will dig another burrow, often within a few feet of the first, and lay a second set; sometimes a third, or even a fourth, attempt will be made. But only one brood is raised in a season. The eggs are short-ovate or rounded-ovate in shape; the shell is smooth and rather glossy; they are pure white in color. The measurements of 54 eggs average 33.9 by 26.7 millimeters, the eggs showing the four extremes measure 36.8 by 27.9, 30.8 by 26.4, and 33 by 25.4 millimeters.
The male does not assist in incubation, but supplies his mate with food while so engaged, and she rarely leaves the nest after the first egg has been laid; at any rate I have invariably found the bird at home if there were any eggs in the nest. Incubation lasts about sixteen days. The young when first hatched are blind, perfectly naked, helpless, and, in a word, very unprepossessing. They scarcely look like birds while crawling about in the nest, where they remain several weeks, their growth being very slow. The excrement of the young is promptly removed and the burrow is kept rather clean. They utter a low, puffing sound when disturbed, and frequently vary considerably in size, as if incubation, in some instances at least, began with the first egg laid. The young, even after they have left the nest for sometime, require the attendance of their parents before they are able to secure subsistence for themselves.
I believe that Bendire's statement above, that the male does not incubate, is incorrect; perhaps he may not do so regularly, or to the same extent that the female does, but several observers have reported finding the male on the eggs, or at least in the nest. The young remain in the nest for about 4 weeks or more, and do not leave until they are able to fly.
William L. Bailey (1900) made an interesting study of a family of young kingfishers, by digging a hole in the rear of the nesting cavity on four different occasions, taking photographs of the young at four different ages, and filling up the hole each time, so as not to disturb the birds too much. He says that when the young were about two days old they "were not only found wrapped together in the nest, but the moment they were put on the ground, one at a time, though their eyes were still sealed, they immediately covered one another with their wings and wide bills, making such a tight ball that when one shifted a leg, the whole mass would move like a single bird. This is a most sensible method of keeping warm, since the mother bird's legs are so short that she could not stand over them, but as they are protected from the wind and weather they have no need of her. Their appearance is comical in the extreme, and all out of proportion. This clinging to one another is apparently kept up for at least ten days, for a week later, when nine days old, they were found in exactly a similar position."
On his last visit, when the young birds were 23 days old, he made an interesting discovery, of which he says: "Taking the precaution to stop the hole with a good-sized stone, I proceeded to my digging for the last time on the top of the bank. This time I found the chamber had been moved, and I had some difficulty locating it about a foot higher up and about the same distance to one side. The old birds had evidently discovered by imperfectly closed back door, and either mistrusted its security, or else a heavy rain had soaked down into the loosened earth and caused them to make alterations. They had completely closed up the old chamber and packed it tightly with earth and disgorged fish bones."
Mrs. Florence M. Bailey (1928) makes the following apt quotation from the writings of Professor Herrick:
From the time of birth the young lie huddled in a cluster in their dark underground chamber. . . . As they grow in size and strength the monotony of sitting still, often with legs and wings interlocked, must become very great, and. . .they soon begin to bite and tease one another like young puppies. Should one be hard pressed, the only way to escape lies along the narrow passage, which they naturally traverse head first; but the instinct to return to the warm family cluster is strong, and to do this they are obliged to walk backwards. Again when the rattle of the alma mater announcing the capture of another fish is heard, each struggles to get down the narrow passage-way first, but when the parent enters the hole she hustles them all back.
The young are fed by their two parents while they remain in the nest, and for some time afterward while they are learning to fish for themselves. Mrs. Irene G. Wheelock (1905) made the following observations:
By care in concealment we were able to discover that the adult came to the nest on the first day with no visible supply of food in the bill but with a gullet conspicuously swollen. We had previously excavated the nest from the rear making a false back to it so that it would be protected from the weather and at the same time open easily. As soon as feeding was completed and the adult out of sight, we opened the nest at the false back, took out the young, then one day old, and examined the crops. They contained a dark gray, oily mass, nearly fluid and very ill smelling, but with no bones or scales in it. If fish they were very small and digested. Returning the young fishers to the tunnel, we closed it. Two days later the experiment was repeated with the same results. Four days later, or the seventh day after hatching, we examined again. This time one of the nestlings had swallowed several small fish about one and one half inches long and the others were still hungry. As yet we had not seen either of the adults bring visible food and the most frequent feedings had been forty minutes apart, I believe all by regurgitation. No record was kept from the seventh to the fourteenth day when an examination was made for the third time. We now found the young showing well developed pin feathers, and there were traces of disgorged fish bones and scales in the nest which had not been there before. The crops examined showed fish only slightly digested and regurgitative feeding had evidently given place wholly or in part to fresh food. On this day one of the adults brought several fish, possibly four inches long to the nest on different journeys. Examinations made on the twenty-first day revealed the same food conditions as the fourteenth. The pile of fish bones and scales was a trifle larger but was partially buried in the earth. There was surprisingly little of this debris in the nest or tunnel but the ground seemed to be saturated with fishy oil. On the twenty-eighth day the young kingfishers resented being examined or photographed, and made good their escape when taken from the nest.
Henry R. Carey (1909) writes:
The food brought to the nest-hole consists of various kinds of small fish. It not infrequently happens that one of these fish is too large to be carried by the parent bird into the narrow passage; it is then dropped upon the sand and is allowed to rot. . . . I once found a common salt-water flounder, four and one-half inches long and proportionately wide, which, being rather unwieldy for the parent bird to handle, had been left in this way. Another time I found a young Sculpin (Callionymus aeneus) in the same condition, and yet, again, a live minnow, which, in spite of a great patch on its side devoid of scales, was finally freed in perfect health. . . .
The young birds leave the earth about July 21 [in New Hampshire]. They are a somber-looking lot, as for several days they sit tamely about the wharfs or venture on short, erratic flights, which makes one feel that they have not yet got used to the light after their long imprisonment underground. It is at this time that both parents and young, somewhat crowded in the vicinity of the home nest by their sudden increase in population, begin to seek out new fishing stubs, or to use old ones for the first time in the year. When the young are able to care for themselves, the old birds leave them and lead once more the single life which they seem to enjoy most.
At this time of year, frequent quarrels occur among them, mostly about the best fishing spots, and now that strange, whining note, which Herrick describes as resembling the grating of two tree boughs in the wind, is often heard. It appears to be a note of anger; I have heard it when one bird, wanting the perch of another, hovered menacingly over him. Once I saw two birds dive simultaneously for the same spot in the water, the same note escaping them as each reluctantly swerved aside.
Floyd Bralliar (1922) writes interestingly of how the young learn to catch their own fish:
The young birds did not remain in the neighborhood of the nest more than a few days, but those few days were busy ones, for in that brief time the mother was teaching her children how to earn a living. She would perch by their side on an overhanging limb and patiently wait for the glimmer of a fish below. The first day or two she usually caught the fish, beat it into partial insensibility and the dropped it again into the water. The young were persistent in their plea for food, but the mother was as insistent that they catch their living if they got any. There was very little current where they hunted, and a fish did not float out of sight quickly. The young birds would crane their necks and look hungrily at the fish below until finally one more hungry or more bold than the rest would make a dive for it. At first the aim was not good, and the bird would miss even a dead fish more often than he succeeded in catching it. Usually, however, he fluttered about the surface of the water until he got his fish, even tho he had missed it when he made his plunge. . . . During the first few days when the young birds became too hungry, the mother would occasionally relent and feed them, but before the week was over, no matter how hungry they became, no food was coming until they caught it. Within ten days the young birds were catching live fish instead of half dead ones.
Then a young bird would catch his fish, carry it to his perch, whack it over the limb a few times, toss it in the air, catch it by the head as it came down and swallow it with as much skill as his mother. As soon as she was convinced of the skill of each of her brood, she forsook them entirely. I do not know whether she ultimately drove them from the neighborhood or whether they left voluntarily, but when July was past only the old birds were to be seen in the neighborhood.
Henry Mouseley (1938), who made a prolonged study of a family of belted kingfishers, estimated the period of incubation to be about 24 days. His report says, in conclusion:
On summing up I find forty-two hours were spent with the birds (May 11 - July 24), during which time the young were fed one hundred times, or at an average rate of once every 25.2 minutes. Of course there were periods when the feeding was much faster, as for instance, once in every 8, 9, 13, 20, and 21 minutes respectively. Sometimes the parents were absent from the nest for long periods of time, such as, 150, 120, 105, 97, 93, 90, 85, 75, 70, and 60 minutes at a time, when of course the young were without food. It was after these long spells that the more rapid feedings generally took place. As already remarked, the male seemed to pay the most attention to this part of the business, for I find of those times when I was perfectly sure of the sex of the parent, the male fed twenty-eight times to his partner's fourteen, or just double. It was the male parent which was the last seen at the nest previous to the departure of the one surviving young--a male. The food for the most part consisted of small fish, crawfish, minnows, tadpoles, and probably beetles.
Plumages.--The young kingfisher is hatched naked, blind, and helpless, a shapeless mass of reddish flesh, looking much like a very young puppy with a huge conical bill. Its eyes do not open for about two weeks. Within a week, or less, the pinfeathers or feather sheaths appear, and soon the young bird bristles in all the feather tracts with quills like a young porcupine, which grow to varying lengths and show, before they burst, the pectoral band and the general color pattern of the adult. When the young bird is 17 or 18 days old, a remarkable change takes place within the short space of 24 hours, for the sheaths rapidly burst and the juvenal plumage blossoms out all over the body.
In this plumage the young bird looks strikingly like the adult with only minor differences, and the sexes are alike. Young birds of both sexes, when fully fledged, have the pectoral band more or less heavily tipped or mixed with cinnamon, rufous or dull brown; this usually consists of narrow edgings in young males, but in young females many feathers are half or more brown; the rufous band of the female adult is only partially shown in the young female, mainly on the flanks, and it shows to some extent in nearly all young males, some having nearly as much as young females; the crest is darker than in adults, there is more white in the wing coverts, the white tips of the secondaries are more extensive, and the central tail feathers are spotted, as in the adult female. This juvenal plumage is also a first winter plumage, for it is worn without much change until spring. Young birds have a first, prenuptial molt early in spring, which involves most of the body plumage, perhaps all of it, the tail, and apparently the wings also; this takes place between February and April. Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in August, September, and October.
Mr. Brewster (1937a) made some observations on the roosting habits of kingfishers at Umbagog Lake, Maine, of which he says: "Every evening, a little after sunset, two or three Kingfishers resort to Pine Point to spend the night. They fly directly into the forest and go to roost among the densest foliage, often that of spruces and arborvitaes, growing anywhere from four to ten rods back from the nearest shore." One that he watched "flew up into a tall, slender Paper Birch, and alighted near the end of a long branch, about thirty feet above the ground. . . . As darkness gathered, the bird settled lower and lower on the branch, and drew in its neck without, however, burying its head in its plumage, for I could still see its bill pointing outward over the breast. At 9 p.m. I went under the tree, and by the light of a lantern dimly made out the Kingfisher, crouching in the same attitude, in exactly the same place."
Food.--The kingfisher is a fish eater and an expert fisherman, well deserving of its name. It evidently prefers fish to any other food and would probably live on fish exclusively, if it were always able to secure all it needed. It catches mainly small fish, preferably not over 6 inches long, and mostly those species that are of little use, or even harmful, economically as far as human interests are concerned. The kingfisher has been condemned by trout fishermen as a great destroyer of trout, but in a large measure unjustly. Kingfishers undoubtedly visit trout hatcheries frequently and can easily catch plenty of trout in the open pools, where the trout have no place to hide and where they are congregated in large numbers; they can do considerable damage in such places, but the trout can be easily protected by placing wire screens over the pools. In the trout streams wild trout are not so easily caught, for, as every trout fisherman knows, the trout are seldom seen in the open places except when darting swiftly across them, but spend their time hiding under overhanging banks, or under logs or stones, and only dashing out occasionally to capture their prey. On the other hand, chubs, dace, suckers, and sometimes sculpins are very common in most trout streams, generally in larger numbers than the trout; they frequent the open spaces, are much slower in their movements than the swiftly moving trout, and consequently are more easily caught. The records show that these neutral or harmful fishes make up the greater part, or nearly all, of the kingfisher's catch in trout streams. Chub and sculpins are very destructive to small trout fry; and suckers eat quantities of trout spawn; consequently the kingfishers are really doing the trout fisherman a favor by reducing the numbers of these fishes in the streams and should be protected rather than persecuted.
The kingfisher must of necessity do its fishing in clear water, so is seldom seen on the muddy streams or ponds, or on those that are choked or overgrown with thick vegetation, such as is often found along trout streams. It usually perches on some stake, snag, or pier standing in the water, or on some bare overhanging branch, where it can watch patiently for some passing fish. Favorite perches of this sort in good fishing spots are resorted to regularly and rival kingfishers are driven way, for the kingfisher is a solitary bird except during the nesting season or while training its young. From such a perch the bird may dive obliquely into the water to seize the fish in its powerful bill; or, rising 30 or 40 feet into the air and scanning the water below it in more active pursuit of its prey, it may stop and hover for a few seconds, with rapidly vibrating wings, and then make a straight or spiral dive directly downward, disappearing beneath the water sometimes for several seconds. It is not always successful in its plunges, as the fish may move and cause a sudden change of direction in the bird's rapid dive either above or below the surface; but it is not easily discouraged and is always ready to try again. Having secured the fish, it flies with it to some favorite perch, where it beats the fish into insensibility, tosses it into the air, or otherwise adjusts it, so that it can swallow it head first and thus avoid any injury to its throat from the sharp spiny fins. Sometimes the fish is too large to be swallowed completely, in which case the tail must be left protruding from the mouth until the rapid process of digestion enables the bird to gradually work it down. Manly Hardy wrote to Major Bendire (1895) of such a case, and says: "I shot a Kingfisher last spring that had swallowed a pickerel considerably longer than the bird from the end of the bill to the tip of the tail, and the tail of the fish protruding from the throat, while the head was partly doubled back, causing a large protuberance near the vent."
Where fish are not readily obtainable, especially in the arid regions of the Southwest where the streams largely disappear during the dry season, the kingfisher seems able to make a good living on various other kinds of food. the list includes crabs, crayfishes, mussels, lizards, frogs, toads, small snakes, turtles, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, salamanders, newts, butterflies, moths, beetles and other insects, young birds, mice, and even berries. On the seacoast, it has been known to feed on clams and oysters, which sometimes results disastrously for the bird. H. C. Hopkins (1892) reports finding a kingfisher with "its bill held fast between the shells of an oyster." The bird had evidently inserted its bill into the open shell of the oyster, which had closed upon it; "the tongue [was] quite black from non-circulation of the blood, which showed that it must have been held prisoner for some time." The bird would probably have drowned at the next high tide.
Dr. B. H. Warren (1890) reports that a friend of his once caught one of these birds on a hook and line while fishing with a live minnow for bait. He also says: "One day B. M. Everhart found a kingfisher lying on the bank of a small stream. On making an investigation, Mr. Everhart ascertained that the bird was unable to fly, as its bill was tightly clasped in the grasp of a large fresh-water mussel. I have heard of several instances where kingfishers have been captured under similar circumstances, which could naturally lead one to suppose that they feed to a limited degree on the flesh of these bivalves."
In the Bermudas, kingfishers are said to feed on squids. Walter B. Barrows (1912) quotes Professor Aughey, of Nebraska, as follows: "One that was sent to me to identify in September, 1874, had 18 locusts, in addition to portions of some fish, in its stomach. One that I opened in September, 1876, had mingled at least 14 locusts with its fish diet." Bendire (1895) caught a kingfisher in a trap baited with a mouse, and believed "that not a few mice, and possibly small birds also, are caught by them during their nocturnal rambles, and they are certainly fully as active throughout the night as in the daytime."
Kingfishers disgorge as pellets the indigestible portions of their food, such as fish bones and scales, the shells of crustaceans and the seeds of berries; the bones and scales found in the nests are remains of such pellets. Henry R. Carey (1909) writes:
Only once have I seen a pellet of fishbones and scales being disgorged from the bird's beak, as he sat on his hunting perch. These pellets are found wherever the birds are accustomed to sit for any length of time. I once found one completely composed of various parts of the shell of a small crab. Only a few days later I had the pleasure of seeing a crab actually caught. The bird captured him by diving in the usual way and took him to a low rock where he proceeded to bang him just as he would have done to a minnow. During this process the crab, which measured an inch and a half sideways across the shell, lost several legs and was dropped upon the rock, from which by a considerable effort he managed to fall by scrambling to the edge with his remaining legs. The bird, perhaps seeing that he was rather a large morsel to swallow whole, then forgot him completely and went on with his fishing.
Ora W. Knight (1908) has seen kingfishers chase and capture moths and butterflies, taking them on the wing. Dr. Thomas S. Roberts (1932) says that they have been known to eat young sparrows; also that "crawfish are pounded and crushed before the swallowing, and fish that are too large may be divided into pieces by the powerful bill. Miss Densmore, of Red Wing, once saw a Kingfisher that was making unsuccessful attempts to handle a small turtle. This was thoroughly pounded and variously manipulated but had to be discarded in the end."
Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1918) writes: "Early in August, 1917, Mr. John Hair, gamekeeper of Mr. R. T. Crane at Ipswich, missed six of a four days old brood of Bob-whites. He had seen a Kingfisher nearby and later the same day saw it perched on the gable end of the little house where the Bob-whites had been hatched, and from there pounce on the young birds as they ran in and out. He shot the Kingfisher, and, on opening the bird, a female, found the legs and feathers of young Bob-whites in its crop."
When hard pressed for animal food the kingfisher has been known to eat wild cherries and probably other wild fruits. Dr. Elliott Coues (1878) published the following note from Mrs. Mary Treat about a kingfisher that fished regularly from a private wharf in front of her house in Florida: "When the water is so rough that it is difficult for him to procure fish, instead of seeking some sequestered pool he remains at his usual post, occasionally making an ineffectual effort to secure his customary prey, until, nearly starved, he resorts to a sour-gum tree (Nyssa aquatica, L.) in the vicinity, and greedily devours the berries. Returning to his post, he soon ejects a pellet of large seeds and skins of the fruit."
Behavior.--The belted kingfisher is a striking and picturesque feature of the landscape whether in action or at rest. The mountain trout stream would lose much of its charm without the rattling call of the lone fisherman and the flash of his broad, blue wings, as he follows the course of the stream, flying well below the treetops until he glides upward to alight on his accustomed perch, there to tilt his short tail nervously up and down and raise and lower his long crest a few times, as he sounds his battle cry again. At the seashore, too, his trim, unique figure and his conspicuous color pattern, as he perches day after day on his favorite stake or goes rattling along the shore, add color and a tinge of wildness to the scene.
The flight of the kingfisher is strong, swift, and graceful, usually low, but high above the treetops when traveling; often there are five or six rapid strokes followed by a long glide on half-closed wings. Mr. Carey (1909) writes of it:
The Kingfisher's flight is remarkable for its beauty. How easily those long wings carry him about, as he skims so close over the water that their tips are sometimes wetted, or, as he hovers, his body appearing absolutely motionless, in that wonderful way which few birds can equal, for indefinite periods of time. Sometimes, especially in water half a foot or less in depth, he dives while flying nearly parallel to its surface. Sometimes, in his journeys from perch to perch when fish are plentiful, he dips again and again into the water in this way, reminding one of the Swallow as he gracefully touches the water here and there in his flight over the mill pond. Again, he drops like a falling stone in a nearly perpendicular line upon his fishy prey.
Again he writes, referring to times of keen competition over good fishing grounds:
On such occasions one bird is often angrily pursued by another. These pursuits are most reckless and enduring in character. One sees the two birds swirl by like two blue flashes of light, to disappear in an instant of time on perfectly controlled wings perhaps far away in the pine woods, almost grazing the tough trunk of some mighty tree, or heading for a sheer cliff and rising fifteen feet or more to clear it when it seems that they must be dashed to pieces on the rock. I once saw a Kingfisher, hard-pressed in such a pursuit, adopt a clever means of escape. His pursuer was close upon him--about five feet behind. On they came down the creek, neither bird seeming to gain upon the other. Both were flying at top speed low over the water. Suddenly there was a splash, and the foremost Kingfisher disappeared under the water. The bird behind swept on and lit on a nearby stub, not attempting to renew the chase when his enemy reappeared.
The above was probably a case of one bird defending its territory against the invasion of it by another kingfisher. Frederick D. Lincoln (1924) saw a striking example of this during his field work in the marshes of the Illinois River; he says: "During the period of greatest abundance, practically every channel had its quota of birds, each of which appeared to patrol or to hold dominion over a certain well-defined section." As many as 8 or 10 birds were encountered, each always confined to its own limited section. One of the boatmen told him that "he took much pleasure in informing club members and others who might be with him in the club launch, just how far the kingfisher then in sight would go and where the next one would be met."
William Brewster (1937a) watched a kingfisher at Lake Umbagog that "plunged into the water, striking a fish so large that he had to let it go after a brief struggle, during which he failed to bring it to the surface, although evidently trying his best to do so."
Voice.--There is not much beauty in the voice of the kingfisher, but the loud rattling call always produces a thrill to the listener; it is a wild, weird, wilderness call that enlivens the solitudes and punctuates the stillness of lonely shores or forest streams; it seems to fit in well with the active vigor of this aggressive guardian of his domain, as a warning to his rivals. It consists of a series of harsh, wooden, rattling notes of great carrying power. It has been likened to the sound made by an old-fashioned policeman's or watchman's rattle, a very good description for those of us who are old enough to remember such out-of-date sounds; but it may remind the younger generation of the sound made by certain noise-making instruments used at get-together dinners, political rallies, or other joyous gatherings.
It is not easily expressed in syllables, but Mr. Bralliar (1922) has written it fairly well as rickety, crick, crick, crick. The call varies some under different circumstances, sometimes being quite soft and low, as if in a conversational tone with its mate. The courtship note, referred to above by Mr. Allen, was "a mewing note uttered in rapid succession, almost if not quite as loud as the familiar rattle." Then there is the whining note, referred to by Mr. Carey above, "resembling the grating of two tree boughs in the wind," which seems to be a note of anger while quarreling over fishing rights. Brewster (1937a) says that "on such occasions they often utter a harsh cah-car-car-car, quite unlike the usual volley of watchman's rattle-like notes."
Field marks.--The kingfisher could hardly be mistaken for anything else. Its shape is distinctive, its large head and crest and its long, heavy bill are all out of proportion to its body, short tail, and tiny feet. As it flies its great blue wings, its white collar, and its banded breast are unique. Its loud, rattling note proclaims it beyond doubt.
Enemies.--The most serious enemies of the kingfisher are the selfish fisherman, who wants all the fish for himself and begrudges the poor bird an honest living, and the proprietor of a trout hatchery, who is unwilling to go to the trouble and expense of screening his pools to protect his fish. The former shoots every kingfisher he can with misguided satisfaction; the latter either shoots or traps any that visit his pools. A small, unbaited, steel trap is set and fastened to the top of a stake or post near the bird's favorite fishing pool; if the trap is so set that the pan is at the highest point, the bird is almost sure to alight on it and is caught. Hundreds of kingfishers are caught and killed in this way along private trout streams, or about trout hatcheries, every year.
The natural enemies of the kingfisher are of no great menace to its welfare. The Cooper's and the sharp-shinned hawks often pursue it, perhaps largely for sport ***.
The remains of a kingfisher have been found in the stomach of a red-tailed hawk; the former must have been caught unaware, for the hawk is no match for it in flight. The kingbird sometimes makes life miserable for the kingfisher; Fred T. Jencks (1881) writes:
The Kingfisher had poised himself several times to look for fish, and was just moving to do so again as the Kingbird approached and attacked him. The Kingfisher is not a troublesome bird, and always minds his own business. He was entirely unprepared, and acted as though he could not believe that the other had any evil intentions, for he tried to poise again. The second attack seemed to undeceive him, and show him his enemy was in earnest. He vaulted and turned, vainly endeavoring to rid himself of his persecutor. He soon saw he could not save himself by flight and tried diving. As soon, however, as he appeared at the surface he attempted to fly, but the Kingbird, keeping up an incessant twittering, forced him to dive again. Two or three times this was repeated, both birds making considerable noise, until the Kingfisher seemed convinced that escape in that direction was impossible, so he sat like a duck upon the surface, and as his persecutor would swoop at him he would go under. This lasted for some little time, until even the Kingbird seemed wearied and flew away.
Snakes and perhaps skunks or minks may crawl into the nesting holes, while the parent birds are away, and destroy the eggs or young; but it would seem that the formidable beak of the kingfisher, if at home, would prove to be an effective weapon of defense. H. H. Bailey (1907) says: "While digging out some Kingfishers' nests this season I was surprised to find a dead bird in about every fourth or fifth hole. This I was at a loss to account for, as the birds showed no signs of combat or disease, while the plumage was not even disarranged. The bodies, though, seemed to be dried up, with no signs of blood in them, so I presumed that something had crawled into the holes and sucked the blood from them, leaving the carcass intact. This surmise proved correct, as the last hole I dug out contained a large black snake, and a dead kingfisher still warm."
I quote the above for what it is worth, but cannot agree with Mr. Bailey's conclusion. I have never heard that the black snake is a blood-sucker and doubt if it would attack a bird as big as a kingfisher. If such well-known blood-suckers as minks or weasels had attacked the bird, there would have been evidences of a struggle. I believe that the snake was looking for eggs. The kingfishers may have died from an epidemic of roundworms or ringworms, which have often proved fatal to these birds.
Frederic H. Kennard told me that while he was fishing on Grand Lake, Maine, he and his daughter heard a splash behind them and their guide saw a kingfisher dive, disappear beneath the surface and not come up. Although they all watched for some time, the bird never appeared. They paddled over to the place where the kingfisher dived but could see no trace of the bird in the water or in the air. They suspected that some of the large fish, pickerel, salmon, or togue, that abound in that lake, may have caught the kingfisher.
Arthur W. Brockway tells me of a nest that was dug into by a skunk and the young devoured, the excavation being made from above the nest.
Winter.--The belted kingfisher is a hardy bird, and remains as far north in the fall and winter as it can find open water in which to catch a fair supply of fish. A few kingfishers remain all winter, especially during mild winters, in southern New England, frequenting to some extent the open inland streams, but more regularly along the southern coast of Cape Cod to Long Island Sound.
There, Mr. Forbush (1927) says, "they go into winter quarters in December, especially about river mouths where at that time the little frost-fish come in, and there they remain, unless extreme cold locks rivers and shores in ice."
They are occasionally seen in winter in the northern tier of states. Dr. L. H. Walkinshaw writes to me from Battle Creek, Mich.: "Along open stretches of water, a few kingfishers can be found during the entire winter. I have several dates for southern Michigan for December, January and February. I have watched them on zero, or near zero, days dive from some dead branch after minnows in the open stream."
Mr. Skinner says in his notes from Yellowstone Park: "Ordinarily this is a migratory bird, but here a few remain all winter along the streams kept open by hot water. During cold winds and storms, they are often seen in the most protected places, but with feathers all fluffed out. The winter birds noticed have been males, the females not appearing until March 17. In winter, I believe they roost in the tops of the thick cedars in the Gardiner Canyon, but I have no data about the other localities."
Most of the kingfishers migrate to the more southern states
during the late fall, where they find open water and plenty of
fish. There they establish regular fishing stations and live their
solitary lives, each in its own territory. We often saw one in
Florida perched day after day in practically the same spot,
presumably the same bird in each case.
Belted Kingfisher* Ceryle alcyon [Eastern Belted Kingfisher]
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1940. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 176: 111-129. United States Government Printing Office