Kingfishers

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While jogging down the irrigation ditchbank one afternoon, I heard a loud, rattling call. A not-quite-crow-sized bird flew up from a perch above the ditch with strong, precise wingbeats, headed downstream. Its distinctive silhouette included a daggerlike bill and a ragged crest atop a big head. Its plumage was sober blue above and pure white below. A wide blue-gray stripe crossed its chest.

The clattering call, which sounds like a loud wooden rattle, and the unique silhouette gave away the bird’s identity: a belted kingfisher, named for its banded chest and its fish-catching skills. Its scientific name, Ceryle alcyon, commemorates the Greek goddess Halcyone, who threw herself into the sea in grief for her drowned husband; the gods took pity on the couple and turned them into kingfishers. (Ceryle comes from the Greek for “king of the fishes.”)

Belted kingfishers’ head and bill are proportionately larger than their small feet and short tail, making them appear top-heavy when perched. But their ungainly physique belies a graceful abilty to hover and dive. Living along shallow water from seacoasts to creeks, ponds, lakes and small rivers, belted kinfishers fish for their meals. They spot their prey - mainly small fish, but also bullfrog tadpoles, crabs, crayfish, and mussels - either from a perch or as they hover over the water. (Kingfishers also sometimes hunt over land, diving for small animals such as lizards and insects.)

Once a kingfisher spots a toothsome aquatic morsel, it dives directly into the water, seizes the fish in its powerful bill, then pushes itself to the surface with its short, strong wings, and flies back to its perch. There the kingfisher stuns the fish by whacking it on the perch, tosses the fish into the air and swallows it whole, headfirst. This latter behavior is not a display of bad manners; rather, it is an adaptation to birds’ lack of teeth. After kingfishers digest their meal, they spit out the undigestable parts - such as fins, scales, and bones - in a pellet, like hawks and owls.

Strongly territorial, kingfishers are solitary except in breeding season - April to May in the southern Southwest - when they pair up to dig a 3- to 6-foot-long horizontal nest burrow in a bank near water. The partners alternate excavating, digging with their stout bills, and pushing out dirt with their feet; depending on how clayey the soil is, burrow construction requires from three days to three weeks. Incubating the four to six eggs and raising their brood takes another two months.

Although belted kingfishers live in the southern Southwest year-round, they need permanent water. Our irrigation ditch - a seasonal stream, running only from April to October - boasts no such residents. Only in spring and fall do we hear the occasional rattling call, or see a plummeting dive as a visiting “king of fishers” passes through on its way to more promising waters.