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Sep 05 2009

Daily Discoveries: Belted Kingfishers

Belted Kingfisher. PHOTO BY Jamie Rood

Belted Kingfisher. PHOTO BY Jamie Rood

By Jennifer Barbour

“The keenness of their eyes gives them vision to spot the tiniest bit of food, and with alacrity and precision of motion they pick it up … Theirs is a world of instant decisions and quick action.” – Gwen Frostic

The summer sun is beginning to give up its fight, giving way to the cooler days of fall. Kids are going back to school, the marsh grass is beginning to bloom, and family vacations at the beach are now sweet memories. For Naturalists on the islands, a sure sign of the coming fall is the arrival of a spunky bird with a loud call.

The Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) is a stocky mid-sized bird with a large head, thick bill, and shaggy, Mohawk-like crest. They measure between 11-14 inches in length, and have a wingspan between 19-23 inches. Both male and female have a slate blue head, large white collar, a blue band on the breast and white underneath. The back and wings are also slate blue with black feather tips. Females have a rusty band across the upper belly, making it one of the few bird species in which the female is more brightly colored than the male. A distinctive, long clattering rattle usually precedes a sighting of this fish-eating bird found on sheltered waters.

Belted Kingfishers search for prey from a lookout perch on trees or wires and can be seen hovering over the water before plunge-diving headfirst to capture small fish. While fish make up the majority of this bird’s diet, they will also consume aquatic invertebrates, insects, and small vertebrates. They breed along streams, rivers, lakes, and estuaries across most of Canada, Alaska, and the United States. The nest of the Belted Kingfisher is a long tunnel, 1-8 feet long, excavated by both parents in a riverbank or sand bank. A slight uphill slope provides an air pocket of safety for the chicks in the event of rising waters. The female lays 5-8 eggs and both adults incubate the eggs and feed the young. Belted Kingfisher pairs are territorial, especially during breeding season. As waters freeze in their northern ranges, Belted Kingfishers will migrate to the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and northern South America.

So while you’re out enjoying the Lowcountry’s beautiful fall weather, look up when you hear a long clattering sound overhead, or take a closer look with you notice a distinct Mohawk-ed avian silhouette perched on a cedar snag in the marsh. You may have caught a glimpse of the Belted Kingfisher during his autumn visit to the islands.

About the Author: Jennifer is a Naturalist with the Kiawah Island Nature Program. To contact her with comments or personal stories, email her at

* Information from Sibley’s & Peterson field guides & Cornell’s Ornithology web site

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