By Bryan Stevens
Fishing is a favorite pastime for many people, who like nothing better than to spend a lazy summer afternoon trying their luck at their favorite fishing spot.
There’s also an angling counterpart among our feathered friends. The belted kingfisher’s nature as an angler rules out this bird ever visiting feeders in the backyard, but that doesn’t mean you’re unlikely to see this bird. With a little strategic effort, an observation of a belted kingfisher is fairly easy to obtain, especially during the summer months. If you live near a stream, pond, river or other body of water, you have probably been fortunate enough to observe a belted kingfisher as it goes about its daily routine.
If you are a fishing enthusiast yourself, you’ve likely shared some favorite fishing holes with this bird. The belted kingfisher is patient in its pursuit of fish. The birds prefer to perch on an exposed branch or a wire that overlooks a body of water that offers ample fishing opportunities. The belted kingfisher, however, is capable of hovering in place in order to spot and then capture its prey in an impressive plunge and lunge into the water.
Most of my observations of hunting kingfishers have involved the birds in their ambush approach to fishing — perching and diving on the unsuspecting fish. I have on a few occasions, however, also observed kingfishers as they hover over the water in a quest for a meal.
The belted kingfisher, like most of its kin, looks to have a head and bill that are slightly too large for the rest of the body. It’s the long, heavy bill that the kingfishers uses to snatch fish from their watery homes.
Speaking of kin, the belted kingfisher is only one of 114 species found worldwide. Worldwide, these amazing birds range in size from the 16-inch-long laughing kookaburra of Australia to the tiny African dwarf kingfisher, which at four inches in length is smaller than most sparrows. This family of birds is divided into three groupings, the river kingfishers, the tree kingfishers and the water kingfishers. Kingfishers are a cosmopolitan family of birds with species present on every continent except Antarctica.
Despite the name “kingfisher,” not all kingfishers exist on a diet of fish. Some members of the kingfisher family instead prey on other quarry, such as snakes, lizards and insects.
Some interesting common names have been used to identify the world’s kingfishers, including half-collared kingfisher, shining blue kingfisher, blue-eared kingfisher, azure kingfisher, indigo-banded kingfisher, silvery kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, white-bellied kingfisher, cerulean kingfisher, rufous-backed kingfisher, spangled kookaburra, rufous-bellied kookaburra, shovel-billed kookaburra, lilac kingfisher, brown-winged kingfisher, stork-billed kingfisher, great-billed kingfisher, striped kingfisher, lazuli kingfisher, ultramarine kingfisher, cinnamon-banded kingfisher, sacred kingfisher, mewing kingfisher, chattering kingfisher, glittering kingfisher, red-breasted paradise kingfisher, pied kingfisher and green-and-rufous kingfisher.
The three North American kingfishers, however, are exclusively fish-eaters. The belted kingfisher, with a range that spans most of the United States, is the only kingfisher encountered by most Americans. Two others, the ringed kingfisher and the green kingfisher, are found in Texas and occasionally in other locations near the Mexican border.
In her book “The Folklore of Birds,” Laura C. Martin writes that in some accounts the kingfisher, not the dove, was the second bird Noah released from the ark after the Biblical flood. Instead of looking for land, the kingfisher flew too high and the sun scorched the bird’s feathers. After his setback with the raven and now the kingfisher, Noah made the kingfisher remain on the ark’s deck to catch its food from the water.
Halcyon days, a term meaning a period of peaceful quiet, is derived from Greek legend. According to the legend, the god Zeus restrained the storms during the period when the kingfishers nest. The scientific name for the belted kingfisher is Megaceryle alcyon, a variation on the term “halcyon.”
Again in Martin’s book, there is an account of a Cherokee legend about how the kingfisher acquired its angling lifestyle. The poor bird wanted to be a waterbird, but lacked the equipment to make a living at fishing. The other animals convened a council and, in pity for the kingfisher’s plight, endowed the bird with its spear-like bill. Since that time, the bird has been known as “king of the fishers.”
The “king of the fishers” is indeed to be envied by human anglers. Although not successful in every attempt, the belted kingfisher is certainly exceptional in its pursuit of fish. According to John Eastman in his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” the belted kingfisher typically captures about 10 fish per day. Some human anglers would envy a success rate like that.
To observe this bird for yourself, stake out a pond or section of river -— the linear trail in Erwin and the pond at Fishery Park are good locations. In my experience, however, the belted kingfisher is somewhat wary of humans, so observe from a respectful distance or you’re likely to scare off the bird, which will depart giving its rattling call that sounds so much like a sound of pure annoyance.