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belted kingfisher

Megaceryle alcyon

What do they look like?

Belted kingfishers have heads that are larger than many birds that are close to them in size. They have tall slate-blue feathers on top of their head. They have heavy tapered bills with narrow nostril slits. They have relatively short wings with 11 primary feathers and 12 to 15 secondary feathers. They weigh 150 grams on average, so they are stout birds. They have small feet, short shin bones, and no feathers on their thigh bones. Their big toe is shorter than the inner and outer most toes. The inner toes are fused together. Belted kingfishers have one single long flat toe which they use to dig nests in the side of river banks. Each toe has a sharp pointed claw at the end. (Ridgway and Friedman, 1914; Sibley, 2003; Terres, 1991)

Belted kingfishers have large slate-blue heads and a white dot between their eyes and their bill. On their neck is a white collar and below is a dark band that wraps around to their slate-blue back. The underbelly of males is white. Different from many other birds, the female is more colorful than the male. Females have another reddish-brown band on its underbelly. Their backs are slate-blue and they have white patches on their primary wings. Their average height is 32.2 cm and their average wingspan is 58.8 cm. (Ridgway and Friedman, 1914; Sibley and Monroe, 1990; Terres, 1991)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • female more colorful
  • Average mass
    150 g
    5.29 oz
  • Average length
    33.2 cm
    13.07 in
  • Average wingspan
    58.8 cm
    23.15 in

Where do they live?

Belted kingfishers live all over the North American continent. They are found from Canada and Greenland in the north, all throughout the mainland of the United States, and as far south as Panama in Central America. The area where they nest is a little bit smaller. It goes from central Alaska to southern California and the southern Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, and from Newfoundland in Canada to southern Florida. (Sibley, 2003; Terres, 1991)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Belted kingfishers live along the banks of lakes and rivers. They look for areas where banks are tall enough to dig burrows where they nest. They also look for clear and smooth water so they can see their prey. They prefer larger streams with fewer trees, so the roots don't get in the way of digging nests. Belted kingfishers can also live in along the side of roads and train tracks and also sand and gravel pits. Wherever they are, it is important for them to have places to perch to hunt for prey. They also need exposed banks for shelter and nesting sites. Belted kingfishers don't live at elevations higher than 2743 meters above sea level. (Coues, 1874; Fry, 2003; Sibley and Monroe, 1990)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • temporary pools
  • coastal
  • Range elevation
    0 to 2743 m
    0.00 to 8999.34 ft

How do they reproduce?

Male belted kingfishers establish a territory during the time they are nesting that is 800 to 1,200 m of shoreline. Belted kingfishers establish their territory around April, around one month before females return from their winter location. If they didn't move location for the winter, females are accepted into the males' territory in early May. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)

Belted kingfishers form a male-female pair bond every season and work together during nesting. After courtship is complete, they dig out a nest. These are usually located close to a fishing site but can be as far as 1.6 km away. Both males and females are excellent at digging. They take turns digging their nest, using both their bills and specially designed feet. They have two fused toes, which they use like a shovel. They dig a nest cavity that averages 15.24 by 25.40 cm in size. The tunnel into the nest is usually 0.91 to 1.82 meters deep but can be up to 4.57 meters deep. Digging the nest takes 3 days to 3 weeks, depending on the kind of sand or soil they are digging in. Heavy rain can delay digging 2 to 3 days. If digging is too difficult because their are tree roots or something else in the way, they leave the nest and find a different location. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)

Belted kingfishers breed one time per year between April and July, depending on where they live. In some southern states, they breed twice in the same year. Females lay 5 to 8 shiny white eggs. The eggs hatch in 23 or 24 days. The nest floor is made of bare dirt if it is new. If the nest has been used before, it might have bones and scales on the floor. Other things that might be on the nest floor are feathers, grasses, straw, moss, and twigs. When the young are born, they weigh 9 to 13 grams. The young can fly after at least 23 days. In about 6 weeks, they are independent of their parents. One year later, they are able to have their own offspring. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Belted kingfishers breed once a year in northern states, but have been recorded to breed twice in the southern parts of their breeding range.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding season occurs in April and May while pair bond is finishing construction of their nest.
  • Range eggs per season
    5 to 8
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    23 to 24 days
  • Range fledging age
    23 (low) days
  • Average time to independence
    6 weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Both male and female belted kingfishers incubate the eggs, so they sit on them to keep them warm. Females are mostly responsible and incubate the eggs every night. Scientists don't know much about where males stay night, but they may stay in a small dugout near the nest. To switch off with each other, they perch near the entrance and call. They incubate the eggs for 23 to 24 days. Then, the eggs take 12 to 18 hours to hatch. For the first 3 to 4 days, females keep the young warm with their body heat. During this time, males feed twice as much as females. Young belted kingfishers consume their body weight in food each day. They begin with very small fish or even regurgitated food. Afterwards, crayfish, tadpoles, and insects are added into their diet. They young are forced out after they develop feathers and the parents stop bringing food. The parents train the young by dropping fish into the water so that the young retrieve it. About a week after they leave the nest, the young are able to catch crayfish by themselves. After 2 to 3 weeks, they are able to catch most types of prey they eat. They move out of the nest and into the forest near the waterway. The parents observe them, probably for protection. After 6 weeks, they are able to be fully independent. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

No literature was found on the lifespan of belted kingfishers.

How do they behave?

Belted kingfishers are diurnal birds, meaning that they are active during the day. They are also digging birds, making nests in walls or river banks. In most places they live, they stay year round rather than migrating. They establish a territory and usually stay inside it. When it is not breeding season, their territory is 300 to 500 meters of shoreline. They move up and down the shoreline in their territory, searching for food. They don't fly higher than the canopy. The pattern of their wing beats is not always even. They stand on fishing posts, which are places to perch over the water where they have a clear view to spot prey. If a bird, human, or predator enters their territory, belted kingfishers pursue the threat boldly while vocalizing loudly. Their call is long, loud, and chattering. Scientists don't know much about their sleeping habits outside the breeding season. They may stay in shallow hollows in banks or trees near where they hunt. (Dewey, 1985; Terres, 1991)

  • Range territory size
    300 to 500 m^2

Home Range

The non-breeding territory of belted kingfishers is 300 to 500 meters of shoreline. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Terres, 1991)

How do they communicate with each other?

Belted kingfishers have good eyesight. Their eyes have good depth perception, and special oils improve their ability to see colors. Their eyes are protected by a third eyelid that closes when they dive for fish. The third eyelid makes it harder to see, so their sense of touch becomes more important after they enter the water. They close their bill when they feel contact with thier prey. All kingfishers are exceptionally vocal and make lots of sounds. Their calls are used for communication and claiming territory. Belted kingfishers use at least six different calls which they combine in different ways to express different messages. The call most commonly heard is the call used for marking territory. It is a long, high-pitched chatter or rattle. (Fry, 2003; Sibley, 2003; Terres, 1991; Woodall, 2001)

What do they eat?

Belted kingfishers are carnivores that eat mostly fish. Depending on what is available, they eat different kinds of fish, crayfish, insects, and even berries. They hunt in rivers, streams, small lakes, ponds, and coastal waters. The fish they eat are usually 4 to 14 cm long, but can be up to 17.8 cm long. They hunt in clear and shallow water. While still hunting, they perch on a tree limb and scan the water until they see their prey. Then they dive off the branch and enter the water head-first. While active hunting, they hover in the air about 90.14 meters from the surface of the water and then dive for their prey. Their dives are shallow so they don't get completely wet. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Fry and Fry, 2010; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)

After catching their prey, belted kingfishers return to their hunting perch. They strike the prey against the tree limb or stab it with their bill to stop it from moving. Then they toss it into the air and eat it head first. If the fish is too large, they leave the fish sticking out from its beak, and let their stomach digest the first part until they can swallow the rest. Like an owl, they spit up pellets of bones, scales, and whatever else they can't digest. When the water is cloudy or there are hunting competitors, it is more energy-efficient to hunt crayfish. In colder waters, they eat cold-water fish like sculpins and trout. In warmer water, they eat slower-moving fish including suckers, sticklebacks, perch, and pike. If there are no fish to eat, they eat tadpoles or baby salamanders. They also eat butterflies and moths, snakes, mollusks, turtles, juvenile birds, small mammals and almost any other insect. Invertebrates such as caddisflies are also are found in their stomachs. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Fry and Fry, 2010; Sandilands, 2005; Terres, 1991)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • fish
  • insects
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Belted kingfishers don't have many natural predators. They are eaten by some larger predatory birds like some kinds of hawks and falcons. The species that eat them are Cooper's hawks, Sharp-shinned hawks, and Peregrine falcons. If pursued by one of these birds, belted kingfishers dive underwater until the predator goes away. The light underside and darker back of the kingfisher works as camouflage. (Bennet and Tiner, 2003; Dewey, 1985; Sibley, 2003; Terres, 1991)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Belted kingfishers are top predators in both saltwater and freshwater food webs. They are a primary host for one type of parasitic worm called trematodes. (Combes, 2001)

Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

Belted kingfishers sometimes prey on fingerlings of fish hatcheries. (Hamas, 1994)

How do they interact with us?

Belted kingfishers are appreciated by bird enthusiasts.

Are they endangered?

Belted kingfishers are not endangered and populations appear stable throughout their range. (Hamas, 1994)

Some more information...

Belted kingfishers were previously known by the scientific name Ceryle alcyon.


John Schablein (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Kiersten Newtoff (editor), Radford University, Melissa Whistleman (editor), Radford University, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.


Bennet, D., T. Tiner. 2003. The Wild Woods Guide: From Minnesota to Maine, the Nature and Lore of the Great North Woods. New York: Harper Collins.

Carter, A., N. Thomas, B. Hunter. 2009. Parasitic Diseases of Wild Birds. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Combes, C. 2001. Parasitism: The Ecology and Evolution of Intimate Interactions. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Coues, E. 1874. Birds of the Northwest: A Hand-book of the Ornithology of the Region Drained By the Missouri River and Its Tributaries. Oxford University: Govt. Print. Off..

Dewey, J. 1985. Birds of the Great Basin: A Natural History. University of Nevada: University of Nevada Press.

Fry, C. 2003. The New Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fry, H., K. Fry. 2010. Kingfishers, Bee-eaters and Rollers. London: A&C Black.

Hamas, M. 1994. Belted Kingfisher: Ceryle Alcyon. Philadephia, PA USA: American Ornithologist' Union.

Harrison, H. 1998. A Field Guide to the Birds' Nests: United States East of the Mississippi River. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ridgway, R., H. Friedman. 1914. The Birds of North and Middle America. University of Michigan: Govt. Print. Off.

Sandilands, A. 2005. Birds of Ontario: Habitat Requirements, Limiting Factors, and Status. Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press.

Selendy, J. 2011. Water and Sanitation Related Diseases and the Environment: Challenges, Interventions and Preventive Measures. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Sibley, C., B. Monroe. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Sibley, D. 2003. The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Eastern North America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Terres, J. 1991. The Audubon Society Encylopedia of North American Birds. New York: Wings Books.

Ulrich, T. 1984. Birds of the Northern Rockies. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing.

Wells, D. 2002. One Hundred Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.

Woodall, P. 2001. Family Alcedinidae (Kingfishers). Pp. 130-187 in J delHoyo, A Elliot, J Sargatal, eds. The Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 6, Lynx Edition. Barcelona: Lynx.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Schablein, J. 2012. "Megaceryle alcyon" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 21, 2024 at

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