Belted Kingfisher Community Science: Aerial Ramming of a Nest Bank
Whenever I am close to the watery homes of belted kingfishers, I listen for their rattling chattering calls. I marvel at the female’s red belt and ponder why she is more colorful than the male—an oddity in the bird world. I remain awestruck by their swift headfirst plunges to snap fish from the surface of a river, creek, pond, or bay.
For seven years, I pursued the jay-sized birds on Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana. That quest to observe a nesting pair turned out to be challenging. Belted kingfishers are loners, skittish, and fiendish to study. However, the rewards of a difficult journey are many—like finding something never recorded before.
First, you need to know this. Kingfishers nest within vertical earthen banks near water. A male and female will take turns digging a tennis ball-sized hole that becomes a tunnel extending usually about three to six feet deep and ending in a football-sized burrow. They start with their beaks and then dig with their tiny feet. When finished, the vigilant parents raise typically five to eight chicks.
In 2010, my second year of observing these fascinating birds, I witnessed a wild drama as a pair attempted to excavate a new burrow. On April 17th, the kingfishers were ramming the upper portion of a 15-foot-high streambank next to Rattlesnake Creek. They took turns. One would hover twelve feet away and then fly full tilt into the wall of earth. Bang! The bird bounced back and staggered in the air before wobbling to a tree branch on the same side of Rattlesnake Creek. Then, the mate took aim and dirt flew when the sharp bill struck the cliff.
Smash! As aerodynamic as a fighter jet, the female kingfisher powered into the bank. The tip of her bill jammed into the soil. She bounced off. A few seconds later, she flew down to the shallow edge of Rattlesnake Creek and bathed in the bracing waters, droplets scattering. The rinse was brief. She flapped back up to a branch, wiped her dripping beak on one wing, and preened.
For three consecutive days, my friends Lisa and Paul Hendricks and I watched the birds persevere. What started as a dent morphed into a shallow bowl and then a hole. The first morning the kingfishers hit the wall with their bills as chisels, sending dirt flying. On the second and third days, we noticed they sometimes carried soil in their beaks. The male out-carried the female, eleven bouts to five. We couldn’t be sure, but we think they opened their bills slightly to strike and snatch debris. Like all birds, the bony bill is protected by a thin layer of keratin, the same material as our fingernails and toenails. However, unlike most birds, the lower mandible can unhinge more than the upper, a useful adaptation for excavating a burrow or snagging a fish underwater.
We recorded the daring crashes into the bank from our vantage point about a hundred yards away on a rise above the floodplain. Paul counted 176 bill strikes in 180 minutes over the three mornings, with the male and female taking turns almost equally.
By day four, the kingfishers had excavated a hole big enough to squeeze inside. The aerial ramming was over. Then, either late on day 4 or on day 5, the pair gave up. We found them at the lower part of the upper bank, reclaiming an existing hole.
Paul had a hunch our observations might well be the first to be recorded. Later, he would publish a note in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology reporting the new find of aerial ramming by belted kingfishers. I’d be a coauthor with Lisa—published community scientists.
The act of community science is threefold: to observe, record, and then share the finding. Some discoveries are earth-shattering. Ours? Head pounding!
I’m Marina Richie, and this Field Note is a modified excerpt from my book, Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher. Field Notes are brought to you by the Montana Natural History Center, providing natural history education for schools and the public throughout Montana. For information about upcoming events and programs at the Center, call 406.327.0405 or visit our website at MontanaNaturalist.org.