The geographic range of Megaceryle alcyon (belted kingfisher) includes all of the land masses within the Neartic region, including northern territories of Canada, mainland United States, and all of Greenland. The range of belted kingfishers extends as far south as Panama. Belted kingfishers nest in a slightly smaller range that extends from central Alaska to southern California and the southern Yucatán and from central Labrador and Newfoundland to southern Florida. (Sibley, 2003; Terres, 1991)
The habitat of belted kingfishers requires a body of water, often surrounded by forest, that features nearly vertical exposed earth for digging burrows in which it nests. Example habitats include lake or river banks, but also cuts from roads and railways and pits of sand and gravel. Acceptable bodies of water include rivers, ponds, streams, coasts, and lakes. Males seek higher-order waterways with more herbaceous plant life than trees, which have less obstructions that block nesting. The waters must be clear and have areas of smooth water so that belted kingfishers can detect prey. Higher, steeper banks are preferred as a defense against both flooding and predation. Availability of perches is also important for belted kingfishers as a visual vantage point for locating prey. Exposed banks are essential for shelter and nesting sites. Desirable breeding habitat characteristics are the same as desirable non-breeding habitats. Belted kingfishers occur up to 2743 meters elevation. (Coues, 1874; Fry, 2003; Sibley and Monroe, 1990)
Belted kingfishers have proportionally larger heads than most bird species of a similar size. The head is fully feathered and features a tall prominent crest. The feathers on the occiput and nape are slightly taller than the center of the crest, resulting in a doubly pointed crest. Their bills are heavy and tapered to a point providing them with an advantage when diving head-first into the water for prey. Their bill is generally longer than their head. The nostrils are narrow slits with a broad operculum overlapping. Belted kingfishers have relatively short wings. They have 11 primary feathers and 12 to 15 secondary feathers. Belted kingfishers are a stout birds weighing an average of 150 grams. Their feet are proportionally small, the tarsus is short, and the tibia is featherless. The hallux is shorter than the inner and outer most toes. The inner toes are fused together, which is known as syndactyly. This fusion results in what appears to be a single long flattened toe which the bird uses to excavate nesting cavities. The outermost toe is as long as the fused toes, and at the end of each toe is a sharp pointed claw. (Ridgway and Friedman, 1914; Sibley, 2003; Terres, 1991)
The large head and crest of belted kingfishers is a slate-blue. There is a white dot of the lores between the eye and the bill. The neck has a white collar that wraps around the neck almost entirely, and below that white collar there is a dark band that wraps around the uppermost portion of the breast and connects to the slate-blue back. The remaining underside of the male is white. Belted kingfishers exhibit an infrequent display of avian sexual dimorphism, where the female is more colorful than male. The female has another rufous band below the shared dark band which is separated by a small white patch. The back of both sexes is the same slate-blue color as the head, but the greater primary coverts display a white wing-patch. On average, belted kingfishers are 32.2 cm tall and have a wingspan of 58.8 cm. (Ridgway and Friedman, 1914; Sibley and Monroe, 1990; Terres, 1991)
Male belted kingfishers establish a breeding territory that attracts females. This typically encompasses 800 to 1,200 meters of shoreline. Belted kingfishers establish their territory around April, roughly one month before females return from their winter location. If the birds females wintered in the same region where they will breed, the female will be accepted into the male’s territory in early May. Belted kingfishers are seasonally monogamous, and form a pair that works together during nesting. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)
Belted kingfishers are seasonally monogamous, and form a pair bond that works together during nesting. After courtship is complete, belted kingfishers excavate a nesting cavity. These are preferably constructed close to a fishing site but have been recorded as much as 1.6 km away. Both males and females are formidable diggers and take turns to excavate the nest, using both their bills and specially adapted feet. Belted kingfishers have two fused toes, which act like a shovel during digging. Eggs are laid in the back of a tunnel dug into the bank. This cavity in total averages 15.24 by 25.40 cm. Entrances to the tunnel are placed between 0.30 and 0.91 meters from the top of the bank, and average 10.16 cm wide and 8.89 cm tall. The tunnel will often incline as depth increases. Depths of these tunnels are typically between 0.91 and 1.82 meters deep but have been recorded as deep as 4.57 meters. Construction takes 3 days to 3 three weeks depending on substrate characteristics. Heavy rain events can delay digging for 2 or 3 days. Sbterranean obstructions are avoided or, in some cases, the nest is abandoned. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)
Belted kingfishers breed once a year between the months of April and July, depending in part on their geographic location. In some southern states breeding events may occur twice in one year. Females lay 5 to 8 oval, glossy white eggs in the back of the nesting cavity which hatch in 23 or 24 days. Newly excavated cavities require eggs to be laid on the bare dirt. With time or reuse of nesting cavity, a collection of indigestible material (bones, scales, exoskeletons) may pad the floor of the nest; feathers, grasses, straw, moss, and twigs have been infrequently recorded. At birth, hatchlings weigh 9 to 13 grams, and young fledge after a minimum of 23 days. It takes approximately six weeks before the fledglings become independent. Both the male and female reach sexual maturity approximately one year later. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)
The female is the primary incubator, but both of the adults participate. The female is responsible for all nocturnal incubation, and little is known about the male’s nocturnal roosting site. Some males roost in a shallow dugout near the primary nesting cavity. When one mate comes to relieve the other from incubating, he or she will perch near to the entrance and call. At this time the other mate will exit before the caller enters. After an incubation period of 23 or 24 days, hatching occurs within a 12 to 18 hour period. Attentive brooding by the female occurs for the first 3 to 4 days and then begins to taper off. By the 6th day, brooding comes to a complete halt. During that brooding period the male feeds twice as much as the female. Food provisions begin with very small fish or even regurgitated food. Later on, crayfish, tadpoles, and even insects are incorporated into their diet. Young belted kingfishers consume their body weight in food each day. Once provisions cease and the young develop feathers, they are forced out of the nest. At this time, adults begin training by dropping fish into the water and making the young retrieve it. About a week after leaving the nest, the young are able to catch crayfish on their own. Within 2 to 3 weeks, they develop proficient predatory skills over most prey items. Young will move into dense foliage near the present waterway. At this time adults observe from their regular perches, likely to serve as protectors. Once the young are about 6 weeks old, they are fully independent. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)
No literature was found on the lifespan of belted kingfishers.
Belted kingfishers are diurnal birds. They are also considered fossorial because of their excavating behavior during the nesting season. Most of the geographic range has a mild winter and can support belted kingfishers year round, and migration usually occurs based on food source availability. Once belted kingfishers establish their territory, they are relatively confined to that location. Outside of the breeding season, the territory of a belted kingfisher can be 300 to 500 meters of shoreline. Little is known about their roosting habits outside of the breeding season, but they may utilize shallow hollows in the bank or roost in a tree within their hunting ground vicinity. Within their established territory, belted kingfishers they move up and down the river above the water and below the canopy, searching for food. They perch on fishing posts, usually unobstructed perches over the water from which they spot prey. If a potential threat such as a bird, human, or predator enters that territory, belted kingfishers boldly pursue the intruder and and vocalize loudly until the threat evacuates. Their call is long, loud, and chattering. Wing beats can at times appear unmethodical. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Dewey, 1985; Terres, 1991)
Belted kingfishers use sight as their primary means of perception. Their eyes have two fovea which give them the advantage of precise depth perception. Oils within their eyes improve their ability to see color. Their eyes are protected by a nictitating membrane when diving for fish. This membrane does impede their vision so their sense of touch becomes increasingly important after the bird has entered the water. They close their bill when they feel contact with a prey item. All kingfishers are exceptionally vocal. Their calls are used for communication and claiming territory. Belted kingfishers exhibit at least six different calls which they combine in different ways to express different messages. The call most commonly heard by the casual observer is a call used for territory delineation, which is a long, high-pitched chatter or rattle. (Fry, 2003; Sibley, 2003; Terres, 1991; Woodall, 2001)
Belted kingfishers are primarily opportunistic carnivores. They may also eat berries when ideal prey is unavailable. Hunting sites include rivers, streams, small lakes, ponds, and coastal waters. Lakes must be small because wave action makes sighting prey difficult. Their preferred prey is fish, and then crayfish. Belted kingfishers eat fish between 4 and 14 cm in length, but have been recorded consuming fish as long as 17.8 cm. Methods of hunting include still hunting as well as active hunting. The still hunting method, which is more energy efficient, involves perching on an unobstructed and usually dead limb of a tree overlooking the feeding site. When prey is spotted, they dive off the branch toward the water at an angle, entering head first. While active hunting, belted kingfishers hover around 90.14 meters from the surface of the water. Once prey is spotted, they either dive straight down or in a spiraling motion. Shallow, headfirst dives frequently result in an incomplete submersion of the bird. Both of these methods require high water clarity and a shallow depth. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Fry and Fry, 2010; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)
Once a prey item has been caught with the bill, they return to the scouting perch. At this point they immobilize the prey by striking it against the limb of the tree or even stabbing the prey with their bill. Then, belted kingfishers toss the prey into the air and consume it head first. If the fish is too large, they leave the fish protruding from its beak, and allow digestive enzymes to break down the first portion of the fish before swallowing the remainder. Similar to an owl, indigestible material such as bones and scales are discarded orally in the form of a pellet. When water is highly turbid, fish are too energetically expensive to pursue, and crayfish become the primary prey item. Belted kingfishers also hunt crayfish when out-competed by mergansers. In colder water, the diet of belted kingfishers includes sculpins and trout. In warmer water, they prey on slower-moving fish including suckers, sticklebacks, perch, and pike. Where fish are unavailable, belted kingfishers consume larval amphibians. Other possible prey items include butterflies and moths, snakes, mollusks, turtles, juvenile birds, small mammals and almost any other insect. Invertebrates such as caddisflies are also are found in their stomachs. However, researchers speculate that prey fish consume the caddisfly rather than belted kingfishers. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Fry and Fry, 2010; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)
Belted kingfishers have few natural predators, which may include accipiters and falcons, including Cooper's hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, and peregrine falcons. When pursued by these birds, belted kingfishers dive under the water repeatedly until the predator ceases pursuit. The light underside and darker back of the kingfisher is a camouflage adaptation. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Dewey, 1985; Sibley, 2003; Terres, 1991)
Belted kingfishers are top predators in both marine and freshwater aquatic food webs. They do not have any mutualistic intraspecies interaction or parasitize, but serve as a primary host for trematodes (Crassiphiala bulboglossa). (Combes, 2001)
Belted kingfishers are appreciated by bird enthusiasts.
Belted kingfishers sometimes prey on fingerlings of fish hatcheries. (Hamas, 1994)
Belted kingfishers are not endangered and populations appear stable throughout their range. (Hamas, 1994)
Belted kingfishers were previously known by the scientific name Ceryle alcyon.
John Schablein (author), Radford University, Karen Francl (editor), Radford University, Kiersten Newtoff (editor), Radford University, Melissa Whistleman (editor), Radford University, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.
living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.
uses sound to communicate
young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
an animal that mainly eats meat
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
parental care is carried out by females
forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.
Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.
mainly lives in water that is not salty.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
parental care is carried out by males
makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds
Having one mate at a time.
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.
an animal that mainly eats fish
Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).
breeding is confined to a particular season
remains in the same area
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
uses touch to communicate
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Living on the ground.
defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement
uses sight to communicate
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