Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

American Birding Association's 2023 Bird of the Year: Belted Kingfisher

In June 1975, after amassing a life list of 40 species during my first spring birding, I took a 4-week field ornithology class at Michigan State’s Kellogg Biological Station. I had to absorb a lot of new information as well as seeing a lot of new birds, more than doubling my life list to 90 species. The intensity jumbled my brain so much that most of the field trips are a blur in my memory. But one stop on June 30 at a lovely wetland bordering St. Timothy’s Church in Kalamazoo remains vivid, because that is where I saw my first Belted Kingfisher.   

Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

My Grandpa had given me the Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps when I was very little, and I was especially taken with the Blue Jay, depicted on the cover as well as its own page and stamp. I saw one at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when I was just 7 or so—one of my most thrilling childhood memories. The very last bird pictured in that book was the Belted Kingfisher, a blue, crested bird that somehow looked similar to yet profoundly different from the Blue Jay. 

Belted Kingfisher

The text didn’t mention it, but the bird depicted was a female, replete with gorgeous orange flanks and belt. I hoped against hope that I’d see one in my lifetime. And now, less than four months after I started birdwatching, here it was! It flew by rather quickly, but I felt amazingly lucky to get any look at all. Within the very next week, I saw three more, including one I found entirely on my own on the Michigan State campus at Baker Woodlot. I memorized its mechanical rattle, making subsequent kingfishers all that much easier to notice.   

The Belted Kingfisher is common enough to see regularly from spring through fall. Virtually all of them leave Minnesota in winter, but one was seen on the 2022 Duluth Christmas Bird Count—the 7th time that happened, and two other times one was seen during Count Week. On the 2018 bird count, two different individuals were counted!  

So Belted Kingfishers are reasonably common, but the continent's Breeding Bird Survey indicates that from 1966–2019, their populations declined by an estimated 0.9% per year resulting in a cumulative decline of 38%. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has designated the Belted Kingfisher a Minnesota Species of Greatest Conservation Need.   

The Belted Kingfisher is #70 on my life list, so I think it’s cool that in the final months of last year, while I was still 70 years old, the American Birding Association made the decision to name it the 2023 Bird of the Year. I’m delighted with the timing, because there’s a campaign at the college where I started out, the University of Illinois, to make this splendid bird their mascot. At this very moment, I’m wearing a sweatshirt that reads “True to the Orange & Blue” with a wonderful drawing of the kingfisher.  

It’s fun for me to see all the attention this cool bird is suddenly getting. I happen to be headed down to the University of Illinois this April to spend a weekend with three of my closest life-long friends—the four of us hung out together in our dorm, sharing two doubles, so we called ourselves the Fourple. During our Fourple reunion, I will definitely have to see and photograph a Belted Kingfisher.   

It’s funny how one funky bird is suddenly bringing together so many lovely but disparate memories of my Grandpa, the two colleges I attended, and my ties with the American Birding Association. Since this is officially the year of the Belted Kingfisher, I hope the University of Illinois Chancellor gets with the program and makes this year-round Illinois bird who is orange and blue the official school mascot. It’s a natural.