- 19.7–25.2 in
- 48 in
- 13.1–21.2 oz
- About the same overall length but less than half as heavy as a Red-tailed Hawk.
- Le Milan de la Caroline, Milan à queue fourchue (French)
- Gavilan tijereta, Gavilan cola de tijera (Spanish)
- The kite’s aerial acrobatics while on the hunt are something to see. It continually flicks and rotates its tail, switching from a straight course to a tight turn in an instant as it scans for prey. Sometimes it rolls and dives backward to catch an insect behind it. Adults swallow their food while flying, rarely perching during the day.
- Though adult Swallow-tailed Kites eat mostly flying insects, they feed their young with many types of small vertebrates—including tree frogs, lizards, nestling birds, and snakes. They snatch these animals from trees and other plants while in flight, and carry them in their feet.
- Swallow-tailed Kites eat many stinging insects including wasps and fire ants. In Florida, the kites often return to their nests with whole wasp nests, eat the larvae, and add the insect’s nest into their own nest. Their stomachs are thicker and spongier than the average raptor stomach.
- Multiple breeding pairs often nest in nearby trees, and nonbreeding birds may also hang around the area. They even carry food and nest materials to breeding females, but the females typically decline their gifts.
Swallow-tailed Kites breed in swamps, lowland forests, and marshes of the southeastern United States, primarily in Florida and South Carolina. They require tall trees for nesting and open areas full of small prey to feed their nestlings. Nesting and foraging habitat includes slash pine wetlands, edges of pine forest, cypress swamps, wet prairies, freshwater and brackish marshes, hardwood hammocks, and mangrove forests. The northern subspecies winters in South America, apparently in the same year-round habitat as the southern subspecies, in sites that remain wet enough during the winter to support prey. These may include humid lowland forests, riparian forests, and forests mixed with savannas. Swallow-tailed Kites are usually found at low elevations, but members of the southern subspecies often breed in sites more than a mile high, given adequately humid conditions.
Swallow-tailed Kites primarily eat flying insects, but during the breeding season they also hunt small vertebrates, including tree frogs, lizards, nestling birds, and snakes. Less commonly, they also eat bats, small fish, and fruit. Stinging and biting insects such as wasps and ants form an important part of the species’ diet. Swallow-tailed Kites hunt on the wing, gleaning prey from deciduous trees, shrubs, and vegetation along rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes, and sloughs. To feed young nestlings, the male kite carries a prey item in one or both feet to the nest. There he perches, transfers the food to his beak, and passes it to the female. She tears it up and feeds it to the young. Adults typically consume their food while flying.
- Clutch Size
- 1–3 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1 broods
- Egg Length
- 1.7–2 in
- Egg Width
- 1.4–1.5 in
- Incubation Period
- 27–33 days
- Nestling Period
- 35–42 days
- Egg Description
- Creamy white with dark brown or reddish brown markings.
- Condition at Hatching
- Helpless and covered in down.
Both the male and female bring material to the site and build the nest, a task that they may take a single day or 1–2 weeks. Nests are made of small, loosely woven sticks such as cypress or pine, lined with lichens and Spanish moss. They measure 12–25 inches across and 5–12 inches high, with a flat surface or a shallow cup (up to a few inches deep).
Swallow-tailed Kites build their nests in open woodlands or stands of trees, usually in an exposed site near the top of one of the tallest trees. They generally build a new nest each year, though they may occupy and refurbish an old nest early in the season before abandoning it.
Swallow-tailed Kites spend most of their time in the air, capturing and swallowing their food in flight. Rarely flapping their wings, they soar and make tight turns, rotating their tail to steer. They are very vocal when alarmed or when clashing with other members of their own species. Breeding pairs appear to be monogamous, and they may either pair up during migration or carry over their relationship from previous years. They establish small territories around and above the nest, and maintain them by flying silently in circles above the nest tree. Intruders are chased with loud scolding. Multiple pairs may nest near each other in “neighborhoods,” and nonbreeding birds often hang around carrying food and nest materials to breeding females (which reject the gifts). Swallow-tailed Kites often roost communally near nests, and right before migration hundreds of kites may roost together.
Swallow-tailed Kites have lost much of their historic U.S. range—they used to occur along the Mississippi as far as Minnesota—but recently they have shown strong population growth at about 6% per year from 1966–2013, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates their global population at 150,000 with about 3% breeding in the United States and the remainder in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Historically, the U.S. breeding range covered at least 16 states, but it is now restricted to 7 southeastern states, with most of the population breeding in Florida. Several states still regard Swallow-tailed Kites as a species of strong conservation concern. Shooting was probably a major factor in the species’ decline in the U.S., but no longer seems to pose a serious threat (it has been illegal to shoot raptors and most other birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918). The kite’s primary threat is habitat loss from agriculture, urban development, logging, and other landscape-altering factors. Roosting kites are also vulnerable to disturbance, including from low-flying aircraft. Management geared toward habitat protection aims to safeguard the existing Florida population and gradually expand the small subpopulations scattered throughout the Southeastern coastal plain.
- Meyer, K. D. 1995. Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). In The Birds of North America Online, No. 138 (A. Poole, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
- Crossley, R., J. Ligouri, and B. Sullivan. 2013. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
- Ligouri, J. 2011. Hawks at a Distance: Identification of Migrant Raptors. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
- North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee. 2014. State of the Birds 2014 Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Washington, DC.
- Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2013. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2013 analysis.
Long-distance migrant or resident. Swallow-tailed Kites from the U.S. migrate to South America. Individuals that breed from Mexico to South America may be resident (nonmigratory) or migrate shorter distances.
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.