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Swallow-tailed Kite


IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The lilting Swallow-tailed Kite has been called “the coolest bird on the planet.” With its deeply forked tail and bold black-and-white plumage, it is unmistakable in the summer skies above swamps of the Southeast. Flying with barely a wingbeat and maneuvering with twists of its incredible tail, it chases dragonflies or plucks frogs, lizards, snakes, and nestling birds from tree branches. After rearing its young in a treetop nest, the kite migrates to wintering grounds in South America.

Keys to identification Help

Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Swallow-tailed Kites are large but slender and buoyant raptors. They have long, narrow, pointed wings, slim bodies, and a very long, deeply forked tail. The bill is small and sharply hooked.

  • Color Pattern

    Swallow-tailed Kites are a sharp contrast of bright-white head and underparts and gleaming black wings, back, and tail. From below, the wing linings are white and the flight feathers are black.

  • Behavior

    These birds are creatures of the air, spending most of their day aloft and rarely flapping their wings. They tend to circle fairly low over trees as they hunt for small animals in the branches. At times they soar very high in the sky, almost at the limits of vision. During migration they may form large flocks.

  • Habitat

    Look for Swallow-tailed Kites over swamps, marshes, and large rivers of the southeastern U.S., particularly in Florida. At the end of summer, all the Swallow-tailed Kites in the U.S. leave and migrate south to South America.

Range Map Help

Swallow-tailed Kite Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Similar Species

No U.S. raptor has a tail as long and deeply forked as the Swallow-tailed Kite’s. Mississippi Kites are mostly gray with a shallow fork in the tail; they don’t show nearly as much contrast as the white-and-black Swallow-tailed Kite. White-tailed Kites overlap with Swallow-tailed Kites in east Texas, southwestern Louisiana, and south Florida. They are smaller, without the deeply forked tail, and are mostly white. They have black shoulders, but lack the Swallow-tailed Kite’s extensive black on the upperparts, flight feathers, and tail. At great distances, Magnificent Frigatebirds have a similar silhouette with a long, deeply forked tail, but their wings are even longer and more narrow than Swallow-tailed Kite. Frigatebirds are all black, or brown-black with a white chest.

Regional Differences

There are two subspecies of Swallow-tailed Kite, but they look very similar and only one of them occurs in the U.S. (it is slightly larger and more purplish-black); the other subspecies is native to Central and South America.

Find This Bird

The best place to look for Swallow-tailed Kites in the U.S. is in Florida, although these spectacular birds also take to the skies above wooded wetlands across six other southeastern states. Befitting their aerial nature, scattered individuals also rarely but regularly turn up far to the north of their normal range. To find Swallow-tailed Kites, keep your eyes on the skies, as these light and graceful birds spend most of the day aloft, either skimming the treetops or soaring up high. Remember that these birds leave the U.S. after the breeding season, so summer is the time to look for them.



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