We often hear this species of bird before we see it. One sound is produced from the bird's
throat, whereas the other sound is produced from an action unrelated to its vocal cords. In this
case, the bird's loudly delivered rattling call is often preceded or superseded by the sound of a
loud splash into the water. Indeed, this is from none other than the handsome and very unusual
Belted kingfishers are seasonal residents here in Minnesota, but anyone who's frequented
the states abundant wetlands, lakes, and rivers should be familiar with this interesting species and come away with an appreciation of this remarkable bird.
Large-headed, short-legged, and short-tailed are good descriptors of the belted kingfisher.
About 12 inches long, the squat and blocky-bodied kingfisher adorned with a prominent crest
atop its head is outfitted with an impressively large and thick bill that seems too big, really, for
its overall body size.
The name "belted" is given because of its very distinct blue breast-band that both sexes
possess. An extra breast-band that's rusty in color adorns the female belted kingfisher, thus a
good diagnostic trait to remember for distinguishing between male and female kingfishers.
No other bird in Minnesota looks like the belted kingfisher. Parts of the bird, I suppose,
do look similar to other birds - the bill of the kingfisher is similar to bills of herons and egrets.
The body shape is more grouse-like than of other water birds. And the crest is perhaps similar,
albeit much more dominant, to that of the blue jay and northern cardinal.
Even so, one would be hard pressed to say that the belted kingfisher is akin to any other
species of bird, save for the two other species of kingfishers that occur in North America - the
ringed kingfisher and the green kingfisher. However, no other species of kingfisher occurs north
of Arizona and Texas except for the belted kingfisher. In fact, no other species of kingfisher is
more widespread and abundant as the belted kingfisher is.
Few species of birds have adopted the headfirst and seemingly dangerous manner of
capturing its primary prey item - fish - as belted kingfishers. Other birds that employ the
headlong diving strategy are brown pelicans and species of terns.
I first became acquainted with belted kingfishers as a young boy fishing for northern pike
on the Wing River of Todd County, on Otter Tail County's West Leaf Lake at the family lake
cabin, and while canoeing on the slow-flowing and serene Crow Wing River in Wadena County.
On countless occasions I've been enthralled with observing this curious little bird's hunting
style, either as the bird sits waiting and watching from a favorite perch high above the water, or
hovering effortlessly a few feet above the surface of the water, before violently diving and
momentarily disappearing into the water in an astonishing display of surrealism and precision.
Once a kingfisher commits to its eventual underwater dive, rest assured it will emerge in
an instant with a fish clamped tightly within its beak. Most of us assume that fishes large and
small are adept at evading predators, and most fishes are of course, but it could be that fish never evolved behaviors that help them elude, or expect, predators from outside their watery world. Equipped with excellent vision, speed, and weaponry, kingfishers can see beneath the glaring surface of the water much like we humans can with polarized sunglasses.
In Minnesota, breeding pairs of kingfishers will occupy a stretch of river or other body of
water and defend it from other kingfishers and wildlife. Interestingly, and unknown by many
people, kingfishers do not build traditional nests. Rather, kingfishers excavate burrows into
earthen banks near water. If a preferred nest-site doesn't exist, kingfishers will dig burrows into
the sides of high ditches or gravel pits, far from water, in order to raise their young in. And while
both sexes share in burrow excavating duties, it's the male that does most of the digging.
For now, at least, the fascinating belted kingfisher has migrated to its southern climes.
Purely dependent upon an ice-free aquatic environment where fish, amphibians, and crustaceans abound, if not for ice and snow, belted fishers would probably call Minnesota home the year 'round for us to appreciate, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.