Swallow-tailed Kite Life History

Habitat

Habitat ForestsSwallow-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.Back to top

Food

Food InsectsSwallow-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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest TreeSwallow-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.

Nest Description

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).

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:1-3 eggs
Egg Length:1.7-2.0 in (4.4-5 cm)
Egg Width:1.4-1.5 in (3.6-3.9 cm)
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.
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Behavior

Behavior FlycatchingSwallow-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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernSwallow-tailed Kites have lost much of their historic U.S. range - they used to occur along the Mississippi as far as Minnesota - but populations grew between 1966 and 2014, 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. The species rates a 14 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Swallow-tailed Kite is a Tri-National Concern Species, and is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists bird species that are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. 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.Back to top

Credits

Crossley, R., J. Liguori, and B. Sullivan. (2013). The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Princeton University Press, New Jersery, USA.

Meyer, Kenneth D. 1995. Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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