The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Saturday, September 03, 2005

By Ruth Beasley

When I set out to investigate Kingfishers, I knew them to be striking birds, big-headed, crested, blue-and-white birds almost like top-heavy Blue Jays. They have raggedy crests, massive bills, short tails, and tiny legs and feet. What I didn’t know was that they’d turn out to be so interesting.

Belted Kingfishers are most widespread, found across the country near clear water. Males and females are bluish gray on the head, wings, and back — underneath they’re clean white with a blue-gray necklace. Females have some red on the sides and a smaller, lower necklace of red below the gray one.

You may well hear a Kingfisher before you see it, because they make an unmistakable agitated racket of a rattle. A Kingfisher rattle has the sound of metal in it, a tintinnabulation. It’s been compared to the clicking of a fishing reel. They use their rattle to complain about intrusions, or to announce that they’ve arrived on the scene.

The Kingfisher lives up to its name, ruling a watery kingdom and excelling at catching fish. They hunt by sight from an overhanging perch, diving headfirst into the water after prey. Or they’ll hover high above, and dive down when the moment is right. Sometimes they dive 50 feet, striking the water with tre-mendous force — those stout heads and necks absorb the shock.

A Kingfisher, like many a human fisher-man, prefers to fish alone and patrols its terri-tory with great enthusiasm. It will adopt a fa-vorite perch — some bare branch, or piling — and if the water below is clear enough, it will hunt there every day. A flickering fin sends it diving down to the water.

Returning to the perch, the Kingfisher bangs its catch against something solid a few times to stun it, before beginning the arduous business of swallowing it headfirst.

They’ve been accused of posing a danger to trout, but Kingfishers prefer fish like chub and sculpins, which are harmful to smaller trout. Other favorite fish include those called suckers that, if not caught and eaten by the Kingfishers, would be eating great quantities of trout spawn. To quote George Gladden, writ-ing in Birds of America in the 1930s, a King-fisher is “always good company on a trout brook and is never without his click-reel.”

To me the really fascinating thing about Kingfishers is how they raise their young. They don’t build nests, instead they dig burrows into the vertical face of a sandy bank, tunnels three or four inches in diameter and as long as fif-teen feet. Some burrows go straight in; others turn — there can be three or four right-angle turns in a Kingfisher burrow.

For a bird only 13 inches tall with itty bitty legs and feet, these elaborate burrows are am-bitious projects. Males and females work to-gether, digging with their bills, and pushing the dirt outside with their feet.

Burrows culminate in nesting chambers, slightly larger and deeper than the tunnels. Some say the pure white eggs are laid on bare ground, but others say a nest of soft grass or a cup of fish-bone flakes is set upon the floor. The young are born blind, naked, and helpless, and for awhile are fed regurgitated fish by their parents. They huddle together for warmth in the burrow while their parents are fishing.

In time, the adults teach the youngsters to fish by tossing dead fish or half-dead fish into the water for them to dive after. Once old enough, young Kingfishers depart and dis-perse, to someday rule over a clear water king-dom of their own.

[I learned quite a lot about Kingfishers at]

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At 10:02 PM, Anonymous Trix said...

Wonderful post! We love to watch the kingfishers stalk, swoop, and catch the minnows in our small front lake, and then handle them like a hot potato in his beak before eating them.

At 11:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am studying at UTSA for a BSc in Biology and have a presentation to give for my Ornithology course. Do you mind if I refer the other students to your site?

Best wishes



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