A Visit from a Belted Kingfisher

Tuesday, February 28, 2023


A Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon, has been visiting the nature center this winter. More specifically, it's been perching on our deck, or nearby trees, hunting for fish in our pond! These stocky birds, with large heads and heavy-duty bills, are known for plunging head first into a body of water to grab small fish, frogs or crayfish. They will also hover over the water, with their bills pointed down, positioning for the strike! We regularly see and hear kingfishers along the river here at Knoch Knolls Park during the summer and winter months. As long as the water doesn't freeze over, kingfishers may stay overwinter and seem to have ample hunting grounds. So you might hear their loud, rattling call when you walk along river trails in northeastern Illinois.

Unlike most bird species, where the male is more colorful than the female, Belted Kingfisher females have a rusty red band across their bellies and males don't. Both sexes have bluish-gray head crests along with the same color on their chests, backs and tails mixed in with white. Kingfishers are solitary for most of the year with male's establishing territories parallel to the shoreline or stream. As part of the courtship ritual, males can be seen feeding a female. Both will defend their nesting territory, chasing away intruders while loudly calling out or shrieking.

Kingfishers nest in burrows they dig into the dirt banks of a waterway in May and June. The male and female take turns digging the nest but the male does most of the work. The burrow extends up to 6 feet into the bank, sloping upwards so that rainwater and high water won't collect inside. About 5-8 eggs are laid in each nest and kingfisher parents may raise up to two broods of babies each breeding season. Born featherless, helpless and blind, baby kingfishers can nonetheless digest bones, scales and feathers. As they mature into adults this impressive digestive ability ends and they must they "cough up" pellets containing these parts, just like owls.

In the past, kingfishers were hunted and trapped, especially near fish hatcheries. But like many species of birds, kingfishers are protected by migratory bird laws. Their numbers have grown in areas where good nesting sites are found. They can be sensitive to disturbances though, especially by humans. So enjoy these incredible fishing birds from afar!

For more about Belted Kingfishers visit here.

To view a video of Belted Kingfishers visit here.

The University of Illinois is considering the Belted Kingfisher as its mascot!