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I often hear kingfishers while I’m paddling along a tree-shadowed shore during summer. Inevitably, they see me first. Their wild, rattling protest of my intrusion into their waterway is similar to a red squirrel’s scolding staccato, spitting an immense displeasure over my arrival in their woods.

Bird bills trivia

The belted kingfisher is on the Canadian $5 note issued in the Birds of Canada Series, in 1986. Other birds in the series: the robin ($2), osprey ($10), common loon ($20), snowy owl ($50), Canada goose ($100) and pine grosbeak ($1000).

The kingfishers then launch off an overhanging tree limb, rat-a-tat-tatting like a shaken box of rattlesnakes as they swoop along the water’s edge. Their attitude is reminiscent of the bumper sticker, “Welcome to Texas. Now go home!” The wrath persists until I paddle to the edge of their imaginary territory, and suddenly ends with a whirl up, circle back, and return to the lookout tree.

The relief may be short-lived—the next segment of my waterway travel may be another kingfisher territory. The fuss is to protect feeding grounds and ensure nest success. To feed themselves and nearly grown chicks, a pair of kingfishers must catch roughly 90 fish about 10 centimetres long daily. Smaller minnows, like the sticklebacks and killifish in our pond, necessitate catching even higher numbers. Too many folks around a nest site may cause its abandonment; hunting interruptions mean nestlings may starve.

Belted kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon) live across North America, except in the extreme north, in one season or another. A few in the Maritimes may overwinter at fish hatcheries, or other environments with open water where lunch is accessible, but most go south for the winter. They return beginning in late April or early May to command and patrol a .25 to 5 kilometre-long strip of shoreline on fresh or salt water.

Larger than robins, adult belted kingfishers have blue-grey on top, a white collar, a large blue band on the breast, and white underparts. Unlike most birds, female kingfishers are more brightly coloured than males: they also have rust-coloured feathers down their sides and across their bellies.

With squat, powerful bodies, small feet and powerful wings, belted kingfishers have oversized heads with a prominent bill and swept-back crest, a “featherdo” reminiscent of a 50s hairstyle.

Kingfishers are perch-and-pounce hunters. They sit on a limb, rock or just about anything that hangs over shallow water, and wait. Unable to see underwater, they hurtle down like they’ve been dropped through a trap door, adjusting their dive to the depth and position of the fish. In shallow water, they bellyflop to avoid hitting the bottom.

They nab fish as deep as 60 centimetres with their beaks and quickly return to the perch. Minnows are usually beaten on a branch, and stunned before being swallowed whole. Although fish are their favourite food, kingfishers also eat salamanders, frogs, snakes, turtles, crayfish, lizards, turtles, mice, berries, small birds and butterflies. Eating mollusks occasionally means flying with an oyster or mussel clamped on a beak. Silty water means they cannot fish.

If they don’t have a nest from a previous year, kingfishers returning in the spring will soon begin to build one. Ideally the den is located in the steep face of an earthen bank, near water. The pair excavate a burrow that may extend a metre or more into the ground. They choose an opening some distance down from the top of the bank to avoid flooding, and to escape predators like raccoons, weasels, skunks and mink. The entrance hole is about 10 centimetres wide. The pair chip away the soil using their beaks, and use their small feet to thrust it out the doorway.

Depending on the soil type, building a nest burrow can take three days to three weeks. In less than ideal conditions, lesser accommodations may be used: ditches, railroad embankments, hollow trees, sawdust piles, sand dunes, gravel pits and road cuts.

One way to identify a kingfisher nest hole is by the two skid marks their feet make as they land at the entrance. A typical nest has half a dozen eggs that are incubated by both parents for about 22 days. After hatching, the nestlings remain underground for another four weeks. At first the parents feed them tiny minnows barely 1.25 centimetres long. They provide progressively larger minnows to nestlings as they grow, making about 1,200 trips all told. Inside, some sanitation prevails with the youngsters instinctively chipping away soil in the walls to cover up their rapidly accumulating excrement.

Several days before the nestlings are due to leave the burrow, the parents cut back their feeding. From nearby perches, the parents call and tempt the nestlings with fish. Emerging from the dark, safe burrow, the youngsters beg from the entrance until hunger finally forces each one to take its maiden flight. Overweight, reluctant, and poor fliers, they are prime targets for Cooper’s hawks and other birds of prey as they emerge.

Adult kingfishers will deliberately mob any hawk or owl in the neighbourhood to protect their youngsters. If the raptor retaliates, the chase often ends with the kingfisher diving underwater.

My appreciation for belted kingfishers grew with the opportunity to observe them below my house. After I excavated a pond there in 2003, sticklebacks, killifish, smelt and trout swam up from Pomquet Harbour through a tidal creek into the new habitat. A posse of fish-eaters followed: otters, mink, great blue herons, American bitterns, double crested cormorants and belted kingfishers. Overhanging alders and staghorn sumacs around the pond provide suitable perches for the kingfishers.

In late summer, adult kingfishers bring their youngsters to the pond almost daily. There they learn to fish during a three-week period before being on their own. Noise always heralds their arrival. I tend to drop whatever I’m doing because their antics are amazing entertainment. Like pilots performing in an air show, they swoop low over the surface in formation, fanning up and flaring out over the alders. Doubling back, they fly intersecting paths, barely missing each other. Four or five blue-grey streaks careen through the air at once. When they really get rolling, the kingfishers start madly bouncing around on the water, like stones being skipped simultaneously across its surface in different directions.

Alice and I have owned a small fishing boat for three years. Last summer we were heading up the harbour when a kingfisher flew out to join us. Hovering for a time overhead, like they often do when hunting, the male finally landed on the bow railing. For a time it resembled a fine-carved figurehead. The pilothouse makes our boat look front-heavy, like a kingfisher.

We finally have a name for the boat now. Here’s hoping we have as much fun on the water!

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