MARS Moment August 2011
by Sandy Fairfield, MARS Education Coordinator
It’s easy to miss a solitary, motionless bird perched along a river bank, shoreline or lake as it sits waiting for an unsuspecting fish to pass by, but a raucous rattling call will reveal an intriguing, beautiful and somewhat elusive bird: the Belted Kingfisher.
Found across Canada and in the west from Alaska to Central America, some Kingfishers are year-round residents: locally, a good place to watch for Kingfishers is along the Puntledge and Campbell Rivers, or along the coastline from Courtenay to Union Bay; I’ve also seen them perched on the rocks at Comox Harbour.
A stunning, medium-sized stocky bird, the female Kingfisher has a blue-gray body and dark gray head with a shaggy crest on top; the male is darker blue. Unlike most species, female Kingfishers are more brightly coloured than the males. Both sexes have a white collar around their necks have white under parts and the females have beautiful chestnut rufous band below this collar extending down the flank. Kingfisher tails are quite short, spotted with white and have some white banding on the ends. Although there is usually no doubt when identifying these birds, they have two unmistakable features: one is the long, heavy dagger-like beak which they use to loosen dirt when excavating their nest, and to pound fish against a perch before consuming the prey; The other feature are two front toes fused together just below the nails which the birds use as shovels when they dig out their nest.
Usually these birds are heard long before they are seen actively fishing ~ they are fascinating to watch. As their name suggests their food of choice is fish, but some will also eat amphibians, small crustaceans, insects and small mammals. Salmon and trout fry are a special delicacy for these birds which they are known to steal from fish hatcheries. They perch on trees, posts, rocks or other suitable “watch points” close to the water diving in headfirst when they spot prey. Before diving in they will often hover above the water; once they enter the water they open their wings to keep the dive shallow. Their thick plumage is heavily oiled and extra layers of downy feathers insulate them against the cold water. Like many birds of prey, Kingfishers cast pellets consisting of fish scales, bones, pieces of shell, or other material they cannot digest.
Kingfishers’ are one of a few land birds that actually excavate their nest site, tunnelling into suitable dirt banks, most often along rivers. Mated for life, both birds are involved in nest building: loosening the dirt with their beak, they shovel with their fused toes; this can take up to fourteen hours. The tunnel can be between 30 and 250 centimetres in length, usually slanted uphill to protect the nest from high water, and ends in a bare nest chamber. Between five and eight eggs are produced: the young are born blind and totally naked. As their feathers begin to emerge from the feather shafts they resemble “pre-historic monsters.”
A few years ago MARS received seven baby Kingfishers that were found when a river bank was excavated and their nest destroyed. It was a great challenge to raise these birds; three were successfully raised and released. Last week we received another Kingfisher, this time a mature female
who had a mate and was found on the ground after she presumably hit a cabin window. This pair are resident on Read Island, east of Quadra Island; due to the remoteness of the island it was a few days before the injured Kingfisher was brought to MARS. Initially she was thought to be stunned, but then seemed to have flight problems and became emaciated. These are highly-strung birds that become extremely stressed in captivity: they often refuse to eat and it’s very difficult to replicate their habitat and allow them to dive as they normally would in the wild. The Read Island Kingfisher is still having to be tube-fed which is hard on the bird, but she is flying and perching and hopefully will soon be returned to her mate and home.
Kingfisher populations seem to be stable and they are one of the few species that seem to benefit from some human development: they are making nests in dirt banks made from road construction and gravel pit excavations, but are still vulnerable to loss of safer natural nest sites along rivers and waterfronts where humans like to spend recreational time. This year there has been plentiful “bait” fish, but populations vary with food availability.
To report injured of orphaned wildlife, please call toll free at 1-800-304-9968, for all other calls 250-337-2021.