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10 Fascinating Facts About the Beloved Belted Kingfisher

The belted kingfisher is a medium-sized bird commonly found in North America. With its striking appearance and unique behavior, this bird species has captured the attention of bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

In this article, we will explore the identification, plumages, and molts of the belted kingfisher in detail, providing readers with a comprehensive understanding of this iconic bird species.

Identification

Field

Identification: The belted kingfisher is a medium-sized bird with a distinctive shape and appearance. It has a large, shaggy crest on its head, a long, pointed bill, and a stocky body.

The male and female have similar plumage, with a blue-gray back, white underparts, and a broad, blue-gray breast band. The wings and tail are also blue-gray.

Similar Species: Several bird species share similar traits with the belted kingfisher, making identification sometimes challenging. The green kingfisher has a similar shape and behavior but has a green back and lacks the belted kingfisher’s breast band.

The ringed kingfisher is another species that shares a similar appearance and behavior but is much larger than the belted kingfisher.

Plumages

The belted kingfisher has two plumages, the breeding and non-breeding plumages. In the breeding plumage, the birds have a brighter blue-gray color with a white collar.

The male has a second, rufous-colored band below the breast band, and the female has chestnut-colored flanks. In contrast, the non-breeding plumage has duller colors, and the male’s breast band is thinner.

Molts

The belted kingfisher undergoes an annual complete molt, where they replace all their feathers. The molt takes place after the breeding season at the end of summer.

Juvenile birds also undergo a partial molt, replacing their body feathers, wings, and tail feathers. The timing of the molt varies by latitude, with birds that breed in northern areas molting earlier than those further south.

In conclusion, the belted kingfisher is a fascinating bird species with distinct features and behavior. With this article’s help, you should be able to identify the belted kingfisher and recognize its plumage and molts.

Next time you venture to a North American waterbody, keep your eyes peeled for this striking bird perched on a branch over the water, ready to plunge in and catch a fish.

Systematics History

The belted kingfisher, scientifically known as Megaceryle alcyon, belongs to the family Cerylidae, commonly known as the kingfisher family. The family comprises about 100 species, including tree kingfishers and water kingfishers, distributed worldwide, except for Antarctica and some oceanic islands.

The belted kingfisher was first described by Linnaeus in 1758.

Geographic Variation

The belted kingfisher’s range stretches from Alaska to northern South America and the Caribbean islands. Despite its wide distribution, the belted kingfisher’s morphology remains relatively constant throughout its range, with little geographic variation.

However, a few minor variations have been identified, mainly in the color and intensity of the plumage.

Subspecies

The belted kingfisher is divided into five subspecies:

1. Megaceryle alcyon alcyon: This subspecies is found in eastern North America, from Alaska to Florida and eastward to the Atlantic coast.

2. Megaceryle alcyon caurina: This subspecies is found in the Pacific Northwest, from southeastern Alaska to northern California.

3. Megaceryle alcyon gigantea: This subspecies is found in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

4. Megaceryle alcyon septentrionalis: This subspecies is found in southeastern Alaska and western Canada.

5. Megaceryle alcyon stictipennis: This subspecies is found in Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

Related Species

The belted kingfisher belongs to the genus Megaceryle, which includes six other species distributed worldwide. The largest of these species is the crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) of Southeast Asia, while the smallest is the American pygmy kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea) of Central and South America.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The belted kingfisher’s distribution has remained relatively stable over the last century, with some minor shifts in range expansion and contraction. However, historical records suggest that the belted kingfisher’s range may have shifted throughout its evolutionary history, possibly due to climate change and geological activity.

According to the fossil record, the belted kingfisher’s ancestors were distributed throughout the Eocene and Miocene epochs, about 50-15 million years ago. During the late Miocene, approximately ten million years ago, the species’ range gradually shifted towards North America, probably due to globally cooling climates and the emergence of new land bridges.

Around four million years ago, during the Pliocene epoch, the climate started to become more arid, leading to the diversification of the kingfisher species. During the Pleistocene epoch, two million years ago, global climate change and geological activity led to widespread habitat changes, which caused extinction and range contraction in many bird species, including the belted kingfisher.

After the last glacial maximum, which ended approximately 10,000 years ago, the belted kingfisher gradually recolonized northern latitudes. In summary, the belted kingfisher is a widespread bird species found throughout North and South America and the Caribbean islands.

Despite its range, little geographic variation has been observed in its morphology. The belted kingfisher is subdivided into five subspecies, with little morphological difference between them.

The genus Megaceryle includes six other species worldwide, with varying sizes and morphologies. Finally, historical evidence suggests that the belted kingfisher’s range has shifted over time due to climate change and geological activity.

Habitat

The belted kingfisher is a water-associated bird species found near freshwater, brackish water, and marine environments, including streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, estuaries, bays, and coastal wetlands. Belted kingfishers are highly territorial and thrive in areas with steep banks and overhanging branches, which they use for perching and nesting.

Because kingfishers need access to open water for feeding, they prefer habitats with clear water and low vegetation, which enhances their hunting success. The species is found in various land cover types, including boreal forest, deciduous forest, coniferous forest, grasslands, and pastures.

Belted kingfishers also inhabit suburban and urban areas close to water bodies, such as golf courses, parks, and backyards. However, human disturbance and development, such as deforestation, water pollution, and channelization of streams, may negatively affect the kingfisher’s food resources, nesting sites, and territory.

Movements and Migration

Belted kingfishers are non-migratory, resident birds within their breeding range. However, some individuals may disperse from their natal territory and establish a new home range far from where they were born.

These movements are usually short distances and occur primarily in the fall, winter, and early spring. Belted kingfishers occasionally make erratic movements when searching for prey resources or territory.

During the breeding season, adults defend their territories aggressively, chasing away intruders and engaging in aerial displays to establish their dominance. As a result, young birds often disperse from their parents’ territory and establish new territories.

Belted kingfishers are highly territorial and remain in their territories throughout the year, except during severe winter weather when ice and snow cover open water sources and make it difficult to hunt. Belted kingfishers tolerate some overlap in territories but generally avoid direct confrontations.

Belted kingfishers outside their breeding range are usually vagrants or accidental visitors. These birds may travel long distances from their usual range, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles, driven by weather patterns or food availability.

For instance, some belted kingfishers have been recorded in Hawaii, Bermuda, and even Europe, thousands of miles from their breeding range. Migration patterns vary among the kingfisher species, with some species exhibiting long-distance migration, while others, like the belted kingfisher, are non-migratory.

The pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) and the common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) are migratory, flying thousands of miles annually between their breeding ranges and wintering grounds. Migratory kingfishers have adapted to changing environmental conditions during their migration by switching their diets and altering their feeding behaviors.

In conclusion, the belted kingfisher is a resident bird within its breeding range, occupying water-associated habitats across North America. Belted kingfishers are territorial, defending their territory throughout the year, except during severe winter weather.

They occasionally disperse from their natal territory and establish new territories. Migration patterns among kingfisher species vary, with some species being migratory, while others, like the belted kingfisher, are resident.

Kingfishers have adapted to changing environmental conditions during migration by altering their feeding behaviors and switching their diets.

Diet and Foraging

Feeding: Belted kingfishers are specialized fish predators, feeding primarily on fish, but also consuming aquatic insects, crustaceans, and amphibians. They are often described as sitting ducks on a perch above water bodies, waiting for prey to come by.

Once the prey is spotted, the kingfisher plunges feet-first into the water, gripping its prey with its bill and flying back to a perch to consume it. Belted kingfishers use their head and bill shape to break the fish’s spinal cord or skull and swallow their prey whole, including bones and scales.

Diet: The belted kingfisher’s diet depends on the availability and size of prey in its range. Young kingfishers feed mainly on small fish, while adults capture larger fish.

Belted kingfishers also adapt their diet to the season and local prey availability, responding to changing aquatic conditions. In winter, when shallow water bodies freeze over or become scarce, kingfishers switch to saltwater environments and supplement their diet with marine fish.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation: The belted kingfisher has a unique metabolism and temperature regulation system that allows it to hunt and feed in cold water during the winter. While most birds maintain body temperatures between 101-107F, belted kingfishers have a higher body temperature of up to 109F.

This higher body temperature is thought to allow kingfishers to conserve heat when fishing in cold water, while also providing them with the necessary energy to catch prey.

Sounds and Vocal

Behavior

Vocalization: Belted kingfishers use a variety of vocalizations to communicate with each other, mark territory, and attract mates. The most distinctive call is the rattling call heard from the male and female birds, used mainly as a territorial call.

The call is a loud, harsh chattering that can travel long distances across water bodies. Belted kingfishers also use a series of simple, sharp whistles, such as the “kwee-kwee-kwee” call, to communicate with their mate or alert other birds to a predator threat.

Belted kingfishers also use vocalizations during courtship and mating. Males perform aerial displays, such as a courtship flight, featuring a series of undulations and wing flaps, accompanied by multiple calls and exaggerated head-bobbing.

Females respond to these displays by issuing a soft, high-pitched call. Belted kingfishers rely heavily on vocalizations to communicate since their eyes are located too far back on their heads, making it hard to see directly below them.

Instead, they use their keen sense of hearing to locate and track their prey, including underwater sounds, which are amplified through their closed bill. In conclusion, belted kingfishers are specialized fish predators, feeding primarily on fish, but also consuming aquatic insects, crustaceans, and amphibians.

Their diet and feeding behaviors vary throughout the year and are closely related to local prey availability. Belted kingfishers have a unique metabolism and temperature regulation system, enabling them to hunt and feed in cold water environments even during the winter.

The species also uses vocalization to communicate, mark territory, and attract mates, relying on its keen sense of hearing to locate prey even when it is underwater.

Behavior

Locomotion: The belted kingfisher’s primary mode of locomotion is flapping flight. Belted kingfishers have short, broad wings, and a heavy, stocky body that is not well-suited for sustained flight.

However, they are excellent aerial predators, using their wings to fly above water bodies and perch on overhanging branches. Kingfishers also use hovering flight to locate prey, flapping their wings rapidly while keeping their body in one place.

Self-Maintenance: Belted kingfishers maintain their plumage and feathers through preening, which is the act of cleaning and grooming themselves. Preening is crucial for the bird’s survival, keeping its feathers healthy and waterproof.

During preening, the bird uses its bill and tongue to spread oil from the preen gland to the feathers, keeping them clean and waterproof. Agonistic

Behavior: Belted kingfishers are highly territorial birds and use various agonistic behaviors to defend their territory and resources.

They engage in aerial fights, chases, and displays to establish dominance, and may also use their sharp bills to attack intruders. Sexual

Behavior: Belted kingfishers are monogamous, with pairs forming each breeding season, although occasional cases of polygyny and extra-pair copulations have been observed.

Mating occurs from March to April in North America, with pairs performing courtship displays such as the courtship flight. Males may also present fish to the female as part of the courtship display.

Breeding

Belted kingfishers breed in their second year of life, with pairs digging a nest in steep, sandy, or earthen banks near water bodies. The nest chamber can be up to two meters deep, with a small entrance hole.

Both male and female participate in the nest excavation, taking turns to remove the debris from the nest. The breeding season lasts from March to June, with females laying a clutch of four to six white, unmarked eggs.

Incubation lasts for 22 to 24 days, with both parents sharing incubation duties. When the chicks hatch, both parents also share the feeding and care of the young.

The chicks are fed regurgitated fish and grow rapidly, fledging after 27 to 29 days. Belted kingfishers can have two broods per breeding season, with the adults typically beginning a new clutch before the prior brood has fledged.

Demography and Populations

The belted kingfisher’s population is considered stable, with an estimated global population of about 1.2 million individuals. The species’ range has expanded over the last century, with some observed range shifts due to human development and disturbance.

However, localized populations may suffer declines due to habitat degradation and loss of nesting sites. Belted kingfishers have a long lifespan, with an average lifespan of about six years in the wild.

However, some individuals have been recorded living up to 16 years. Juvenile kingfishers have a high mortality rate, with about 80% of juveniles dying within their first year of life.

Their main causes of mortality include predation, starvation, and habitat destruction. In conclusion, the belted kingfisher exhibits a range of behaviors, including locomotion, self-maintenance, agonistic behavior, and sexual behavior.

They are highly territorial birds, with pairs forming each breeding season.

Breeding occurs from March to June, with females laying a clutch of four to six eggs.

The population of the belted kingfisher is stable, but localized populations may suffer declines due to habitat degradation and loss of nesting sites. The species has a long lifespan, with an average lifespan of about six years in the wild.

The belted kingfisher is a fascinating bird species found throughout North and South America, with a range of unique characteristics that make it interesting to study. Its habitat, diet, and foraging behaviors are tailored to survival in aquatic environments, while its vocalizations and mating rituals provide insights into its social and reproductive dynamics.

The species appears to be stable, with localized populations facing challenges due to habitat degradation and disturbance. Overall, the study of the belted kingfisher provides a comprehensive understanding of how a bird species thrives in aquatic ecosystems, giving valuable insights into the natural world.

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