What an interesting and shy bird is the Kingfisher. You will probably hear them before sighting one. The shrill raspy rattle can be heard from a long distance. This seems to be the only recognized sound the Kingfisher makes. It is a large bird that measures from 13″ to 15″ long, with a heavy head and large beak. The inside of the beak is serrated, like the teeth of a saw, which grips the fish and amphibians they feed on to keep them from slipping out. Both sexes have a shaggy crest and are mostly blue with a white belly and a blue belt across the breast. The female Kingfisher is one of the few North American birds which is more brightly colored than the male, with a rusty stripe under her blue belt. Where the water stays open in the winter, such as Salt Creek, its tributaries and wetlands in Lancaster County, or spillways and locks on larger rivers, there is usually a kingfisher to be found. The males will lead the way when the bulk of them return to their nesting areas in the spring. Each mated pair will defend a stretch of water about half a mile in length. In the fall, they will break up to lead a solitary life and defend a feeding range only half the size of their nesting territory.
The nest is a hole, high in a bank above water, which is clear of vegetation. The size ranges from 3′ to 8′ long and culminates in a nest area of 6″ to 10″. They dig the tunnel with their beaks and kick the dirt out with their feet. This undertaking lasts from 3 days to 3 weeks, depending on the density and difficulty of excavating the earth. The female has one brood per year laying about 6 eggs. The eggs are incubated for 23 to 24 days before hatching. The nestling phase lasts 24 or more days. Young Kingfishers have an unusual way of feathering out. Born naked, all their feathers will appear within one week. However these new feathers are contained in sheaths. At almost 2 weeks, the feathers burst forth from these sheaths within a 24 hour period and the nestlings become fully feathered out. The young are then fed fish for about 2 more weeks, until they learn to fend for themselves. The defense of the territory ends after the fledglings are on their own, at which time the whole family disperses into their solitary lives until the following spring. Most Northern birds will move south to stay near open water. Some people have seen these birds dive under water to escape the pursuit of Peregrine Falcons or larger hawks.
Kingfishers are spectacular in their fishing habits as they can launch off from a tree limb, or hover at 20 to 30 feet above the water, then plunge headlong into the water after their prey. The small fish, normally the size of minnows, are dashed to death against the branch of a tree, then tossed into the air and swallowed. The bones and other undigested materials are then regurgitated as pellets, much the same as raptors.
So this spring, when walking near a river, stream or lake, listen for the rattle call of this magnificent and interesting bird. They are well worth a close observation.
Contributed by Mr. Weir Nelson of Wildlife Habitat, Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Published by The Wild Bird Habitat Store