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White-tailed Kite

Elanus leucurus ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: ACCIPITRIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A medium-sized raptor of open grasslands and savannas, the White-tailed Kite is readily identified by its bright plumage and its habit of hovering while hunting for small mammals.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
12.6–15 in
32–38 cm
Weight
10.6–12.7 oz
300–360 g
Other Names
  • Élanion à queue blanche (French)
  • Milano coliblanco, Milano maromero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • During the nonbreeding season, the White-tailed Kite roosts communally, with more than 100 individuals counted at some roosts.
  • Although some populations fluctuate regularly in size, it is unknown whether the White-tailed Kite is migratory, nomadic, or both.

Habitat


Grassland

Commonly found in savanna, open woodlands, marshes, desert grassland, partially cleared lands, and cultivated fields. Generally avoids areas with extensive winter freezes, but rainfall and humidity vary greatly throughout this bird's range. White-tailed Kites hunt over lightly grazed or ungrazed fields where there may be larger prey populations than in more heavily grazed areas.

Food


Mammals

The White-tailed Kite eats mainly small mammals, as well as some birds, lizards, and insects. An analysis of more than 12,500 prey items showed that more than 95% were small mammals, suggesting that White-tailed Kites specialize on these animals and that other prey are taken only incidentally.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.5–1.8 in
3.8–4.5 cm
Egg Width
1.2–1.3 in
3–3.3 cm
Incubation Period
30–32 days
Nestling Period
38–35 days
Egg Description
White overall, blotched with dark brown.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, covered in tan or yellowish down, weighing about 0.6 ounce.
Nest Description

The nest is a shallow bowl made mostly of small twigs and lined with grass, hay, or leaves. Nests measure about 21 inches across, with a cup that's about 7 inches across and 4 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Tree

White-tailed Kites typically nest in the upper third of trees that may be 10–160 feet tall. These can be open-country trees growing in isolation, or at the edge of or within a forest. Nests have been reported in more than 20 tree species. Rarely, White-tailed Kites build nests on top of old, unused nests of other species. Both sexes help choose the nest site; the female may build the nest herself or both sexes may participate.

Behavior


Hovering

While hunting, the White-tailed Kite characteristically hovers up to 80 feet off the ground and then drops straight down onto prey items. This ability to hold a stationary position in midair without flapping is accomplished by facing into the wind, and is so characteristic of these birds that it has come to be called kiting. White-tailed Kites also perform ritualized courtship displays in which a male offers prey to a female prior to egg laying. In an often spectacular aerial exchange, the female flies up to meet the male, turns upside-down, and grasps the prey.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

White-tailed Kite numbers seem to be declining, although they are a relatively rare species and their prey fluctuate greatly in numbers from year to year—so measuring population trends is difficult. In the early 20th century, White-tailed Kites, like many hawks, were subject to shooting as well as egg collecting. Development of land can deprive this species of nest trees, and modern farming techniques can eliminate vegetation that its main prey, voles, use for cover. In a conservation effort in northern California, the California Department of Fish and Game set aside grazed pastures and allowed them to return to grassland; they now support about 10 times the number of raptors, including White-tailed Kites, as before the program began. According to NatureServe, their status is of particular concern in Florida and Louisiana.

Credits

  • Dunk, J. R. 1995. White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus). In The Birds of North America, No. 178 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Range Map Help

White-tailed Kite Range Map
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