Roughly 13 inches long with a shaggy crest and a heavy, dagger-like bill, the belted kingfisher is easily recognized. Both males and females are mostly blue-gray above and white below. Males have a single, blue-gray band across the chest; females have the same band, plus a second, rufous band across the belly.
Most commonly heard vocalization is a loud, dry rattle, reminiscent of a hairy woodpecker. Belted kingfishers are often heard before they are seen.
Belted kingfishers breed near watery habitats throughout most of the United States and Canada. Birds nesting in the northern states and Canada move southward in winter. In areas south of the belted kingfisher’s breeding range— the southwestern United States, Florida, and throughout Mexico and Central America—the species is present only during winter. Where suitable habitat is available, belted kingfishers are permanent residents in much of the United States. Watch for these birds near streams, creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes, or estuaries, especially near wooded areas. They may be found perched on an exposed snag, a pole, or utility wire; hovering over the water; or zipping along a riverbank, often rattling as they go. Except during breeding season, belted kingfishers tend to remain alone. Sometimes they fly impressive distances between hunting areas, so the possibility exists to see a fly-over belted kingfisher in almost any habitat.
These birds tend to seek out a clear vantage point from which to hunt, by either perching or hovering above open water. It is important for the kingfisher to have a clear view into the water, so muddy waters tend to be avoided. When prey is spotted, the kingfisher dives down and grabs its meal with its bill, only rarely submerging. Main foods include small fish—such as sticklebacks, bullheads, stonerollers, and trout—typically no more than three or four inches in length. They may also take mollusks, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and occasionally small mammals and birds.
Belted kingfishers nest in three-to-six-feet-long underground tunnels that the birds excavate. The usual clutch of eggs is five to eight, incubated by both parents for about three weeks. Both parents feed the nestlings until they vacate the burrow at about four weeks of age.