Called also : THE HALCYON
Length12 to 13 inches. About one-fourth as large again as the robin.
MaleUpper part grayish blue, with prominent crest on head reaching to the nape. A white spot in front of the eye. Bill longer than the head, which is large and heavy. Wings and the short tail minutely speckled and marked with broken bands of white. Chin, band around throat, and underneath white. Two bluish bands across the breast and a bluish wash on sides.
FemaleFemale and immature specimens have rufous bands where the adult male’s are blue. Plumage of both birds oily.
RangeNorth America, except where the Texan kingfisher replaces it in a limited area in the Southwest. Common from Labrador to Florida, east and west. Winters chiefly from Virginia southward to South America.
MigrationsMarch. December. Common summer resident. Usually a winter resident also.
If the kingfisher is not so neighborly as we could wish, or as he used to be, it is not because he has grown less friendly, but because the streams near our homes are fished out. Fish he must and will have, and to get them nowadays it is too often necessary to follow the stream back through secluded woods to the quiet waters of its source: a clear, cool pond or lake whose scaly inmates have not yet learned wisdom at the point of the sportsman’s fly.
In such quiet haunts the kingfisher is easily the most conspicuous object in sight, where he perches on some dead or projecting branch over the water, intently watching for a dinner that is all unsuspectingly swimming below. Suddenly the bird drops dives ; there is a splash, a struggle, and then the ” lone fisher-man ” returns triumphant to his perch, holding a shining fish in his beak. If the fish is small it is swallowed at once, but if it is large and bony it must first be killed against the branch. A few sharp knocks, and the struggles of the fish are over, but the kingfisher’s have only begun. How he gags and writhes, swallows his dinner, and then, regretting his haste, brings it up again to try another wider avenue down his throat ! The many abortive efforts he makes to land his dinner safely below in his stomach, his grim contortions as the fishbones scratch his throat-lining on their way down and up again, force a smile in spite of the bird’s evident distress. It is small wonder he supplements his fish diet with various kinds of the larger insects, shrimps, and fresh-water mollusks.
Flying well over the tree-tops or along the waterways, the kingfisher makes the woodland echo with his noisy rattle, that breaks the stillness like a watchman’s at midnight. It is, perhaps, the most familiar sound heard along the banks of the inland rivers. No love or cradle song does he know. Instead of softening and growing sweet, as the voices of most birds do in the nesting season, the endearments uttered by a pair of mated king-fishers are the most strident, rattly shrieks ever heard by lovers.
It sounds as if they were perpetually quarrelling, and yet they are really particularly devoted.
The nest of these birds, like the bank swallow’s, is excavated in the face of a high bank, preferably one that rises from a stream; and at about six feet from the entrance of the tunnel six or eight clear, shining white eggs are placed on a curious nest. All the fish-bones and scales that, being indigestible, are disgorged in pellets by the parents, are carefully carried to the end of the tunnel to form a prickly cradle for the unhappy fledglings. Very rarely a nest is made in the hollow trunk of a tree; but wherever the home is, the kingfishers become strongly attached to it, returning again and again to the spot that has cost them so much labor to excavate. Some observers have accused them of appropriating the holes of the water-rats.
In ancient times of myths and fables, kingfishers or halcyons were said to build a floating nest on the sea, and to possess some mysterious power that calmed the troubled waves while the eggs were hatching and the young birds were being reared, hence the term “halcyon days,” meaning days of fair weather.