Wild Profile: Meet the belted kingfisher

A belted kingfisher perch on a skinny branch By Harry Collins Photography/Shutterstock

Every Canadian should recognize the belted kingfisher—this guy’s been on the $5 bill since 1986. The Canadian Bank Note Company printed the cash as part of the Birds of Canada series. (Since now you’re probably wondering: the $2 note featured the robin and the $10 bill, a flying osprey. Fifty dollars went to a snowy owl, and $100, a Canada goose. The popular, and probably most coveted spot went to every cottager’s favourite bird: the common loon.)

But the belted kingfisher—with its huge beak and spiky crest—is easy to ID regardless of its monetary claim to fame. Although kingfishers migrate, they tend to stick around cottage country longer than other birds, often until mid-November. It’s only once lakes start to ice over and their food supplies dwindle that they’ll hit the skies. Some don’t go farther than Southern Ontario; others head to Central America and the West Indies.

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The belted kingfisher has a big, sharp beak for two main reasons. One, to dig. These pigeon-sized birds don’t build nests; instead, they excavate burrows into high sandbanks or beside lakeshores. It’s slow, hard work. It takes a pair three weeks to tunnel in, kicking sand out of the hole with their feet.

The second reason for the massive headgear…er, facegear? For fishing, of course. (King. Fisher.) A belted kingfisher will hunt, flying low, over shallow water. Once it spots prey—young fish, frogs, or tadpoles—it dives face-first into the lake. Ow! Except no: that large beak is designed to withstand the impact.

With a meal in hand, the bird will head back to a nearby perch (usually a standing, dead tree). It stabs the prey, flips it in the air, and swallows it whole; great blue herons use a similar, violent trick. Sometimes a fish is too big for the kingfisher to swallow in one go. In that case, the bird lets the unfortunate prey sit partway down its throat so that digestive juices can start to dissolve the swallowed portion. Sounds…uncomfortable. For everyone involved.

Spot the belted kingfisher! Go birdwatching at Rondeau Provincial Park

Belted kingfisher babies are gone by the time late fall rolls around. They’re born in May or June and only stay with their parents for about six weeks. But you can still find evidence of adult kingfishers in November. Look for piles of small bones and fish scales on the ground. The belted kingfisher regurgitates this stuff after it eats.

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