The Belted Kingfisher
HIS patrol of our streams and lake shores, in his cadet uniform, is indeed a military figure as well as a militant personality. As he sits upon his chosen branch overhanging some stream or lake shore, his crest abristle, his keen eye fixed on the water below, his whole bearing alert, one must acknowledge that this fellow puts "ginger" into his environment, and that the spirit which animates him is very far from the "dolce far niente" which permeates the ordinary fisherman. However, he does not fish for fun but for business; his keen eye catches the gleam of a moving fin and he darts from his perch, holds himself for a moment on steady wings above the surface of the water, to be sure of his quarry, and then there is a dash and a splash and he returns to his perch with the wriggling fish in his strong beak; he at once proceeds to beat its life out against a branch and then to swallow it sensibly, head first, so that the fins will not prick his throat nor the scales rasp it. He swallows the entire fish, trusting to his internal organs to select the nourishing part; and later he gulps up a ball of the indigestible scales and bones.
The kingfisher is very different in form from an ordinary bird; he is larger than a robin, and his head and fore parts are much larger in proportion; this is the more noticeable because of the long feathers of the head which he lifts into a crest, and because of the shortness of the tail. The beak is very long and strong in order to seize the fish and hold it fast; but the legs are short and weak; the third and fourth toes are grown together for a part of their length; perhaps this is of use to the bird in pushing earth from the burrow, when excavating. The kingfisher has no need for running and hopping, like the robin and, therefore, does not need the robin's strong legs and feet. His colors are beautiful and harmonious; the upper parts are grayish blue, the throat and collar white, as is also the breast, which has a bluish gray band across the upper part, this giving the name of the Belted Kingfisher to the bird. The feathers of the wings are tipped with white and the tail feathers narrowly barred with white. The under side of the body is white in the males, while in the females it is somewhat chestnut in color. There is a striking white spot just in front of the eye.
The kingfisher parents build their nest in a burrow which they tunnel horizontally in a bank; sometimes there is a vestibule of several feet before the nest is reached, and at other times it is built very close to the opening. Both parents are industrious in catching fish for their nestlings, but the burden of this duty falls heaviest upon the male. Many fish bones are found in the nest, and they seem so clean and white that they have been regarded as nest lining. Wonderful tales are told of the way the English kingfishers use fish bones to support the earth above their nests, and tributes have been paid to their architectural skill. But it is generally conceded that the lining of fish bones in nests of our kingfisher is incidental, since the food of the young is largely fish, although frogs, insects and other creatures are often eaten with relish. It is interesting to note the process by which the young kingfisher gets its skill in fishing. I have often seen one dive horizontally for a yard or two beneath the water and come up indignant and sputtering because the fish had escaped. It was fully two weeks after this before this one learned to drop like a bullet on its quarry.
The note of the kingfisher is a loud rattle, not especially pleasant close at hand, but not unmusical at a little distance. It is a curious coincidence that it sounds very much like the clicking of the fisherman's reel; it is a sound that conjures visions of shade-dappled streams and the dancing, blue waters of tree-fringed lakes and ponds.
There seems to be a division of fishing ground among the kingfishers, one bird never trespassing upon its neighbor's preserves. Unless it be the parent pair working near each other for the nestlings, or the nestlings still under their care, we never see two kingfishers in the same immediate locality.
References—The Bird, p. 97; The Bird Book, pp. 154, 444.
Leading thought—The kingfisher is fitted by form of body and beak to be a fisherman.
Methods—If the school be near a stream or pond the following observations may be made by the pupils; otherwise let the boys who go fishing make a study of the bird and report to the school.
1. Where have you seen the kingfisher? Have you often seen it on a certain branch which is its favorite perch? Is this perch near the water? What is the advantage of this position to the bird?
2. What does the kingfisher feed upon? How does it obtain its food? Describe the actions of one of these birds while fishing.
3. With what weapons does the kingfisher secure the fish? How long is its beak compared with the rest of its body? How does it kill the fish? Does it swallow the fish head or tail first? Why? Does it tear off the scales or fins before swallowing it? How does it get rid of these and the bones of the fish?
4. Which is the larger, the kingfisher or the robin? Describe the difference in shape of the bodies of these two birds; also in the size and shape of feet and beaks and explain why they are so different in form. What is there peculiar about the kingfisher's feet? Do you know which two toes are grown together?
5. What are the colors of the kingfisher in general? The colors of head, sides of head, collar, back, tail, wings, throat, breast and under parts? Is there a white spot near the eye? If so, where? Do you know the difference in colors between the parent birds?
6. Where is the nest built? How is it lined?
7. What is the note of the kingfisher? Does it give it while perching or while on the wing? Do you ever find more than one kingfisher on the same fishing grounds?
Supplementary reading—The Second Book of Birds, Chapter XXX; "The Halycon Birds," Child's Study of the Classics; Audubon Leaflet No. 19; "Kooskosemus," Long; American Birds, Finley.