A ratchety, staccato rattle announces the arrival of a Belted Kingfisher along one of Pittsburgh’s riverbanks, over a stream, or across a pond. I love the sound of the bird, so distinctive, as I scan for it in the sky. And I’m not alone. The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of this dashing fellow in his famous 1877 poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” I’ve heard kingfishers coming long before I’ve seen them in undulating flight. Their sound is as distinctive as their look. Part punk rocker with its spiked crest, part Roman classicist with a scientific name, Ceryle alcyon, derived from myths known to Ovid, this widespread species can be found across North America.
Sporting a slate-blue head, white neck band, blue cape and white belly when perched, the kingfisher is about a foot from beak to tail, with short, inconspicuous legs. When it plummets from a wire or branch into a dive, the bird shows off white underwings and a tail whose outer feathers are black and white. Mature females have a russet band across their chests and beneath their wings, unusual in that male birds of most species are typically more dramatically colored. Adult females have the rufous wash, though juveniles of both sexes reveal a little rusty streaking in the wing pits.
In both males and females, the beak is black, long and narrow. Adapted for slippery prey, it also happens to be serrated. (If you ever find your finger pinched in a kingfisher beak, as I once did at the Powdermill Avian Research Center out toward Ligonier, don’t pull. You’ll regret it, though you’ll have a memorable explanation for the Band-Aids.)
Kingfishers are patient anglers, watching, sometimes hovering, above the water with black eyes that stare into the water below. They plunge, wings folded to their flanks, and pull back into the air again in a swirl and swerve. The beak is meant to hold aquatic insects, tadpoles and yes, fish, and the serrations are usually a one-way ticket into the bird’s crop. Bones, scales and other bits come back up as pellets, much as owls expel indigestible parts.
Like most birds in western Pennsylvania, kingfishers nest in late spring and early summer, when food is abundant. Kingfisher nests are rather unusual—commonly a horizontal burrow dug into a sandy, dirt bank. The tunnel can reach three to six feet straight into a slope. There, females lay six to seven elliptical, white eggs that also are tended by males, monogamous for life. The guys cover the day shift. The females cover incubation duties at night. Once the eggs hatch, the naked young are fed on regurgitated fish bits and later whole fish. Kingfisher young leave their tunnel nests after about a month but are still tended by the parents for another three weeks or so. During that time, adults teach chicks to feed by dropping dead fish, amphibians, or reptiles in the water for junior to grab. Once feeding skills are mastered, the young are off.
Dependent on water quality and easily disrupted when watersheds are poorly conserved, the population statewide is in slight decline according to recent breeding bird data. Migratory, kingfishers remain in our area as open water allows, though some individuals head south for the winter, following water and prey as far as Central America and South America. Listen and look for them along your favorite waterway this summer.