Wildlife Matters: A Common Bird In an Unexpected Place
A chance encounter with a common bird in an unexpected place inspired the topic for this week’s Wildlife Matters with the Masked Biologist.
Recently I was walking in the woods to take a look at some work done to repair damage done to a small wetland. As I approached the water’s edge, I heard a very familiar sound. Sometimes described as a chittering, or a rattle, but always considered loud. If you are familiar with the alarm call of the red squirrel, and think of it louder and somewhat harsher, then you might recognize the song of the belted kingfisher.
I was surprised to see a kingfisher back in this area, on this wetland, because I thought of it as fishless. The presence of a kingfisher, flying back and forth from perch to perch raising the alarm at the very idea of my presence tells me there were likely minnows, crayfish, and amphibians in that wetland, a good indicator of its health in spite of the aforementioned damage.
Although I find kingfishers very interesting, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them or wondering how they go about their life. When I looked into the details a bit more, I was very surprised at what I learned. I learned in college that we only have one kingfisher in most of the country, the belted kingfisher. There are a couple of other subspecies that are occasionally seen in the far south. The kingfisher is unique among birds for several reasons. One unusual trait, right off, is that you can tell the female from the male because the female is more colorful. It has a second belt, rust-colored, that you can see across its otherwise white breast, below the blue-gray belt from which their name is derived. Normal sexual dimorphism in birds means that the males tend to be more colorful to attract a mate, and the females tend to be less colorful as they sit on the nest and need the camouflage.
Have you ever seen a kingfisher sitting on the nest? That’s a bit of a trick question because they don’t build nests. Kingfishers excavate a burrow in which to lay and hatch their eggs. They look for soft shoreline above the spring flood zone where there are minimal tree roots. The male probes the soil with its stout chisel-shaped bill, looking for the ideal material for burrowing. Then he works to attract a female, who helps him dig in and upward to make a nest cavity. There is no additional nesting material brought in. The male feeds the female during courtship, and she probably coughs up lots of fish scales, bones, and crayfish exoskeletons which become whatever nest lining the eggs and young will get.
Kingfishers are, as their name implies, experts at fishing. They usually sit in a dead tree or branch overhanging clear water, watching for food below. They prefer minnows, not necessarily trout or baby gamefish (there is a difference). When they see food, they fold up and dart straight into the water to capture their prey. When they come up with it, they land on the branch again, whack their victim’s head against it a couple of times, and swallow it headfirst. If they can’t find the perfect perch, kingfishers can also hover nearly motionless in the air before striking their prey underwater.
Kingfishers are migratory, not exclusively but often. It is common for fish-eating birds to stay in their preferred location until the water freezes. If they are located in an area where water stays open all winter, say a river in Kansas, the males may decide to hang out and defend their territory, ready to attract a new female mate first thing in the spring. However, it is common for birds from our location and farther north, into Canada, to migrate south as far as Colombia. Imagine, that bird clattering away as you drift by in your fishing boat may have spent the winter in the coffee plantations of South America!
The belted kingfisher is in a slow but steady decline according to breeding bird data from the last half century. This is no real surprise, given that they rely heavily on a diet of fish and aquatic organisms that seem easily affected by pollutants, nutrient runoff, and heavy metals. Actually, minnows probably don’t have a heavy bioaccumulation of mercury, so that is probably a minimal problem. Loss of habitat, eutrophication of wetlands and loss of water clarity have probably contributed to this bird’s status as a common bird in decline. Plus, with wintering in South America, who knows what kind of pesticides and contaminants they face? And the challenges with migrating between continents given global weather patterns? Hopefully here in the Northwoods we can continue to protect our lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands, and dependent species like our often overlooked “king of fishers” will continue to thrive.