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The Kingfisher
Nature Bulletin No. 226-A   April 16, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE KINGFISHER
Several years ago, the manager of a government fish hatchery at Rochester, New York, found that, in spite of his most careful efforts, the fish in the ponds -- each pond intended to contain just one kind of fish -- were getting mixed. Young bass were raising havoc among the bluegills; bullheads were found among the bass; and so on. Then, one day, he found out why. A Kingfisher had moved in and was diving again and again into the schools of young fish in the clear shallow water. The bird would come up with a wriggling fish, fly to a dead branch overhanging the water and swallow it. But even when he was too full to hold any more he continued fishing. With a live bass in his beak, he would perch over the bluegill pond, drop the bass, and dive again. He was the culprit who was scrambling the fish.

There are over 200 kinds of kingfishers distributed over the world but only two in the United States. All are remarkable for their plumage and unique habits. Some kingfishers live in deserts and feed on mice, insects and small reptiles. The family is most numerous in the Malay Archipelago and New Guinea where there are many vividly colored species. The common kingfisher of Europe has blue-green upper parts and a rich chestnut breast. The Texas Kingfisher, green above and white below, is smaller than the commonest American species, our Belted Kingfisher -- a top-heavy looking, blue-gray bird somewhat larger than a robin. It looks top-heavy because it has a long stout bill, a big head topped by a crest of tousled feathers, a bobtail, and short weak legs. The white breast is crossed by a blue band. In addition, the female has a reddish-brown band below the blue one, and brown flanks.

Their peculiar call is a loud wild harsh rattle something like the sound of a wooden Halloween "tick tack". Except during the nesting season, kingfishers are solitary, each jealously defending its chosen fishing ground -- usually about a half mile of stream or lake shore. This they patrol from one favorite lookout perch on a dead limb, to another, for small fish. From a perch, or in full flight, they will plunge like an arrow, with half-folded wings, to pursue and seize their prey beneath the surface of the water. The eyes are specially adapted for underwater vision because, although kingfishers have eyesight in the air like ordinary birds, the lenses are egg-shaped to focus both eyes on the fleeing fish when submerged. As in hawks and owls, the stomach digests flesh; after which the indigestible scales and bones are disgorged.

From 5 to 14 glossy white eggs are laid in unlined nests at the end of burrows dug in steep banks along streams. These burrows vary from 3 to 15 feet in depth and are usually dug by the male, using his heavy bill and his feet. The eggs hatch into completely naked young. Later, these homely youngsters develop large coarse pinfeathers which, just before they leave the nest, open in a matter of hours into fluffy-fully- formed plumage. Unlike most birds, the young are as brightly colored as the parents.

The belted kingfisher nests throughout northern United States, southern Canada, Alaska and Labrador. It winters mostly in our southern states, although some linger wherever they can find an unfrozen stream to fish in. Their diet is almost entirely fish, but occasionally they eat crawfish and insects; more rarely, mice and wild fruit. In natural waters they and other predators benefit fishermen by reducing the enormous numbers of young spawned by most fish -- young which otherwise, would deplete their food supply and become stunted.

The kingfisher is one of our best fish managers.


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