Belted kingfishers are the only species of kingfisher found in Canada. Living at the interface between land and water, these iconic blue birds symbolize the interconnectedness of all ecosystems surrounding the Salish Sea.
Photo by: Oliver Tweedie
By: Dr. Erin O’Brien, Avian Biologist, Pender Islands Conservancy Association
Near the top of the cutbank that slopes down to the shoreline of KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest are several excavated holes burrowed into the bank. These burrows can extend anywhere from 1.5 – 4.5 m into vertical, unvegetated bluffs, sandbanks, or road cuts like the one shown in the photo below. Their engineer is a member of a unique, diverse and colourful family of birds: the kingfishers. Part of a larger and even more diverse order that includes birds like kookaburras, bee-eaters, and rollers, kingfishers and their relatives reach their greatest species diversity in Australia and southeast Asia. Of 87 species of kingfisher worldwide, only six are found in the western hemisphere, and only one—the belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)—is found in Canada.
Photo by: Alex Harris/Raincoast
Belted kingfisher: A natural history
Some kingfisher species are terrestrial, living in forests or savannahs and feeding on insects, amphibians, reptiles, young birds, and small mammals. Our familiar belted kingfisher, in comparison, is part of the subfamily of “fishing kingfishers” (Subfamily Alcedininae), which inhabit streams, ponds, lakes, and marine shores and feed mostly on fish, amphibians, and aquatic invertebrates. Belted kingfishers are migratory through most of their range in Canada, because they rely on open water for foraging; in contrast, on the mild south coast of British Columbia, we are fortunate to enjoy kingfishers and their distinctive rattling calls along our shores—including the shoreline at KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest—year-round.
The rattle call of the belted kingfisher. Video recorded by Kate Paton (Pacific Northwest Kate)
The bright ornamental plumage displayed by both male and female belted kingfishers is a trademark characteristic of this avian family. Females appear more ornamented than males because they display a chestnut breast band in addition to the bright blue back, head, and neck band common to both sexes; however, spectral analysis has shown that both the blue and white feathers of male kingfishers are actually brighter than females (i.e. they reflect more light). The prominent bill of the kingfisher has slightly serrated edges (called “tomial serrations”) to assist them in gripping slippery fish. Such interesting birds would not be complete without also having interesting feet: referred to as “syndactyl”, the forward-facing toes of kingfishers and their relatives are fused. For kingfishers, this may allow the feet to function as a “shovel” to push earth out of the burrow during excavation, although most of burrow excavation is accomplished using the long and robust bill.
Female kingfisher (left) with distinctive rust-coloured chest band, and male (right) with fully white chest. Photos by: Tilaï Ellis-Stairs
Kingfisher pairs defend territories varying in size depending on habitat, but territories typically extend 1-5 km along a shoreline. Both sexes excavate the nest burrow and incubate the clutch of 5-7 eggs. Hatchling kingfishers are altricial, meaning they are blind and naked. This development pattern is common in songbirds, but is rare in other bird families. As with songbirds, development of kingfisher young is rapid and young leave the nest after around 24 days. These fledged young must then learn to fish; parents assist with this process by bashing small fish against a tree limb or rock to slightly stun them, then dropping them back into the water for the young birds to retrieve. After mastering these impaired prey, young kingfishers move on to hunting fully mobile fish, amphibians, and invertebrates, finally achieving independence 1-2 weeks after fledging.
A belted kingfisher catching, stunning and dropping a small fish. Video recorded by Kate Paton (Pacific Northwest Kate)
Although belted kingfishers are widespread, their numbers have been declining across Canada and in British Columbia. Among the possible reasons for these declines are reduced habitat quality and/or abundance (wetland, pond, and stream disturbance and loss); fewer available nest sites; environmental contaminants; and human disturbance. Human-built landscapes such as roadcuts and gravel pits provide nesting habitat that is otherwise limited to high, vertical earthen banks along streams and shores, and degradation of these natural nesting substrates due to increased flooding, erosion, grazing in riparian areas, and other human disturbances may contribute to population declines.
Due to their reliance on fish and other aquatic prey, belted kingfishers are important ecological monitors of contamination in aquatic systems, because they bioaccumulate environmental contaminants like mercury in their tissues. Effects of mercury on plumage colour and some measures of reproduction like brood sex ratios have been reported, and while other physiological effects have not been well documented, impacts of environmental contaminants on health, survival, and reproduction in kingfishers are likely significant.
As top predators in aquatic food webs, birds like belted kingfishers (not unlike wolves in terrestrial and coastal systems in North America) have disproportionate effects on abundance, foraging behaviour, habitat use, and growth rates of species at lower trophic levels. Kingfishers also serve as primary burrow excavators in riparian systems, with other species such as bank and rough-winged swallows using their burrows for nesting in subsequent years.
In KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest, belted kingfishers forage along the marine shoreline as well as in the freshwater aquatic habitat of Gardom Pond, and their nest burrows line the cutbank near the shore. More than any other single species, kingfishers knit all the diverse habitats on this land together through their life cycle, holding forest, ocean, and wetland on their brilliant blue wings.
Photo by: E. Myles Clark
How you can help
KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest exists at the interface between land and sea. It provides ideal habitat for belted kingfishers and myriad other bird, amphibian, and other wildlife species. The Pender Islands Conservancy and Raincoast Conservation Foundation need your help to reach our financial target of $2.1 million. Your support will aid in the permanent protection of this collection of forest, wetland, and foreshore habitats. You can track our progress and learn more about our land protection work by visiting our campaign page.
Kingfisher biology and ecology reading list
Davidson, P.J.A. 2015. Belted Kingfisher in Davidson, P.J.A., R.J. Cannings, A.R. Couturier, D. Lepage, and C.M. Di Corrado (eds.). The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, 2008-2012. Bird Studies Canada. Delta, B.C. http://www.birdatlas.bc.ca/accounts/speciesaccount.jsp?sp=BEKI&lang=en
Davis, W.J. 1982. Territory size in Megaceryle alcyon along a stream habitat. The Auk 99: 353-362.
Forshaw, J.M. 1992. Kingfishers and their relatives in Australia. AFA Watchbird: Journal of the American Federation of Aviculture 19(5): 42-46.
Hamas, M.J. 1974. Human incursion and nesting sites of the Belted Kingfisher. Auk 91: 835-36.
Hamas, M.J. 1975. Ecological and physiological adaptations for breeding in the belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota.
Hendricks et al. 2013. Aerial ramming, a burrow excavation behavior by belted kingfishers, with a review of its occurrence among the Alcedinidae. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 125(1): 197-201.
Johnsgard, Paul A. 2009. "Birds of the Great Plains: Family Alcedinidae (Kingfishers)". Birds of the Great Plains (Revised edition 2009) by Paul Johnsgard. 36. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/bioscibirdsgreatplains/36
Jung, T.S. 2016. Predation of a Western Water Shrew (Sorex navigator) by a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). Canadian Field-Naturalist 130(4): 299–301.
Kelly, J.F., Bridge, E.S. & Hamas, M.J. 2020. Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.belkin1.01
Landrum, C.L., Ashwood, T.L. & Cox, D.K. 1993. Belted kingfishers as ecological monitors of contamination: A review. United States. https://doi.org/10.2172/10135364
Popotnik, G.J. & Giuliano, W.M. 2000. Response of birds to grazing of riparian zones. Journal of Wildlife Management 64(4): 976-982.
Steinmetz, J., Kohler, S.L. & Soluk, D.A. 2003. Birds are overlooked top predators in aquatic food webs. Ecology 84(5): 1324-28.
Sullivan, SMP., Watzin, M.C. & Hession, W.C. 2006. Differences in the reproductive ecology of Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) across streams with varying geomorphology and habitat quality. Waterbirds 29(3): 258-270.
Weitzel, N.H. & Panik, H.R. 1993. Long-term fluctuations of an isolated population of the Pacific chorus frog (Psuedacris regilla) in northwestern Nevada. Great Basin Naturalist 53(4), Article 8. Available at: https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/gbn/vol53/iss4/8
White, A.E. 2007. "Effects of Mercury on Condition and Coloration of Belted Kingfishers". College of William & Mary – Arts & Sciences; Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. Paper 1539626860. https://dx.doi.org/doi:10.21220/s2-0956-qp64
White, A.E. & Cristol, D.A. 2014. Plumage coloration in belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) at a mercury-contaminated river. Waterbirds 37(2): 144-152.