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    White-tailed Kite Life History


    Habitat GrasslandsCommonly 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.Back to top


    Food MammalsThe 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.Back to top


    Nest Placement

    Nest TreeWhite-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.

    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.

    Nesting Facts
    Clutch Size:4 eggs
    Number of Broods:1 brood
    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.
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    Behavior HoveringWhile 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. Back to top


    Conservation Low ConcernWhite-tailed Kite is a relatively rare species and its prey fluctuates greatly in numbers from year to year—so measuring population trends of this kite is difficult. Populations appear to have experienced a small decline between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2 million with 4% living in the U.S., and 10% in Mexico. The species rates an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. 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. Back to top


    Dunk, Jeffrey R. 1995. White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

    Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

    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

    Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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