Kingfisher

This belted kingfisher is a female, obvious from the chestnut-colored belly band that is lacking on the males of the species.

Living by a body of water, I am privileged lately to have a northern visitor fishing from my yard on a daily basis.

She is rather good at it, but she never catches more than she can eat. She also shares the fishery with the locals and never clashes with the competition — nothing but an occasional chatter.

It is a belted kingfisher, a lady of the species, that has become a regular predator at my little piece of the planet. There are about four chosen perches on trees adjacent to the water where she sits and waits for some hapless small fish to swim too close to the surface.

When such a prey item makes this mistake, the kingfisher wings into action, swooping and plunging into the water head-first. The diving bird seizes the fish with its dagger of a beak, and a part of its daily calorie quest is satisfied.

If you know the kingfisher, chances are you spend time along the lakes or streams of the region. Without a water source and a good fishy food base, the kingfisher is not apt to spend any significant time there. Lacking this, the kingfisher may be a stranger.

There are kingfishers aplenty around our region because of the rich waterway habitat available. Yet, if you get away from the habitat just a short distance, you probably leave the kingfishers behind.

Kingfishers are not especially plentiful where I reside, but within just about 200 yards is the Clarks River corridor. Kingfishers are one of the more common birds that one may see if moving along the river.

At first glance, our belted kingfisher looks a little like a blue jay on some sort of steroid. The colors, at least, are quite similar.

The kingfish is a stout, medium-size bird with a head that relatively larger for the body and a pair of legs that seem too short. The stocky body is blue to blue-gray, and head bears a shaggy, ragged crest. The throat is wrapped with a belt of white, a blue bandana shape underlies this, and below that is white extending down onto the breast and belly.

Many forms of wildlife, especially birds, have a form of sexual dimorphism. This makes the characteristics on one sex showier, particularly having more vividly colored plumage. It is usually the male that gets more dazzle.

It is not so with the kingfisher. The ladies of the species are colored similarly to the males, but the females have the addition of another belt, a band of rusty orange to chestnut color across the breast and trailing down the sides.

The tool of food acquisition is a strong beak, a straight, stabbing and grabbing tool that is thicker and a bit longer than those of most birds of similar size.

Overall, the kingfisher can reach to more than 13 inches, almost 14 inches in length. Its wingspan can reach out there to more than 22 inches. Atop these dimensions, the bird is pretty chunky, so first impressions that it is a substantial feathered critter are correct.

Noting that the kingfisher that is visiting my residence is a female, the realities seem to fit. Male kingfishers reputedly don’t migrate. They tend to stay “home” and guard their territories from other males that could be interlopers.

Females, meanwhile, the ones with a rusty brown extra color, are free to move a little farther south during the winter. They do not have to go far unless severe cold conditions create ice cover that complicates their fishing.

Males that do not migrate, meanwhile, may have to gravitate to bigger open waters on major rivers or lakes if ice cover on their regular fishing grounds creates hurdles to fine fish dining.

The bird visiting with me, therefore, is most likely a temporary migrant that in a very few weeks will be migrating back north where she will join up with a male mate that has been holding the fort.

One of the things about the mating kingfishers that is most likely to catch one off guard is their nesting habits. They don’t build nests at all. They are cavity nesters, but that is rarely in a tree. Kingfishers are tunnel nesters, and they typically build it .

A necessity of nesting habitat for kingfishers is vertical or sharply sloping earthen banks around the shores of rivers or lakes. Into these mud walls kingfishers dig tunnels that are about human fist-size. Using their short legs but sturdy, clawed toes as well as their stout, sharp beaks, the birds excavate a gently sloping tunnel often 3-6 feet into the bank.

Kingfishers nest without adding any lining materials in the back end of the nesting tunnel. Eggs are laid, incubated and chicks hatched at the deep end. Kingfishers’ prime predators are foxes and raccoons, but these have little access to dirt works nurseries when dug into banks that are vertical or near to it. Because they eat fish, kingfishers have been persecuted by humans, particularly those who do not fish as well. However, because their numbers are modest and because they feed primarily on baitfish and small panfish, kingfishers have no impact on sport fish populations.

Besides, kingfishers are fully protected. I like hearing the occasional chatter, and the vacationing queen is welcome to all the young shad and bluegill she can eat. Watching her catch one now and then is better yet.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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