From northern Canada to the Caribbean and from coast to coast, belted kingfishers inhabit both fresh water and salt water habitats. Although there are over 100 species of kingfishers around the world, the belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) is the only species found in Indiana. Kingfishers perch on limbs or telephone wires overhanging rivers, streams and ponds. The wooded banks beside White River and Killbuck Creek are perfect kingfisher habitat.
At first glance, kingfishers could be mistaken for blue jays except they have a larger head, a shaggy topknot, an elongated heavy beak, and shorter legs. Their bodies are slate-blue with a white ring around the neck. The female is more brightly colored than the male; she has rusty-red coloration on her chest.
Belted kingfishers are considered to be an indicator species because they only fish in unpolluted water. During the breeding season from April until late summer, kingfishers will defend their ½ mile of shoreline territory with a loud rattling cry while flying down the center of the stream. No other bird sounds remotely like them.
Kingfishers spend much of the day on a perch. Their toes are partially fused, making it easier for them to grasp live prey underwater. When they spot a small fish or crayfish, they either dive directly into the water or hover above until they have their prey properly targeted. Their eyes are specially adapted for underwater sight. Kingfishers have a third eyelid to protect their eyes, and the cone cells in the fovea of the retina produce an oily fluid that allows them to compensate for the refracted angle of light underwater. Once they catch a fish, they take it to their perch and beat it on a limb until it’s lifeless, then swallow it headfirst. Indigestible scales and bones are regurgitated as pellets.
Kingfishers are monogamous for the duration of their annual mating season. The male brings a fish or crayfish to the female as a gift. If she accepts it, they will mate. If she refuses the gift, the male eats it himself and goes off to catch another love offering. Eventually, she accepts it and together they dig a tunnel several feet into the bank, ending in a roomy chamber in which she lays 4 to 7 shiny white eggs one day at a time. After about 23 days the eggs hatch and both parents participate in feeding the young.
After about 4 weeks, the parents start coaxing the babies out onto the perch by enticing them with food. Eventually, one at a time, the young fledge and learn to dive for fish. At first they are quite clumsy and can easily drown. Only about ¼ of the offspring will live to sexual maturity. In the southern part of their range, kingfishers may mate again and raise a second brood.
Sheryl Myers taught biology and environmental science for 34 years and has worked as a naturalist for area parks. She is a founding director of Heart of the River Coalition and founding board member of the Red-tail Land Conservancy.