Swallow-tailed KiteElanoides forficatus

adult
Kevin T. Karlson/VIREO
adult
Brian E. Small/VIREO
adult
Geoff Malosh/VIREO
nestlings near fledging
Fred Truslow/VIREO
adult
Brian K. Wheeler/VIREO

Description

Our most beautiful bird of prey, striking in its shape, its pattern, and its extraordinarily graceful flight. Hanging motionless in the air, swooping and gliding, rolling upside down and then zooming high in the air with scarcely a motion of its wings, the Swallow-tailed Kite is a joy to watch. At one time it was common in summer over much of the southeast, but today it is found mostly in Florida and a few other areas of the deep south.

Habitat

Wooded river swamps. Requires tall trees for nesting and nearby open country with abundant prey. In North America found mostly in open pine woods near marsh or prairie, cypress swamps, other riverside swamp forest. In tropics, also found in lowland rain forest and mountain cloud forest.

Feeding Diet

Insects, frogs, lizards, birds. Adults apparently feed mostly on large insects at most times of year, including dragonflies, wasps, beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, many others. Especially when feeding young, will capture many frogs, lizards, snakes, nestling birds. In tropics, also eats small fruits.

Feeding Behavior

Extremely maneuverable in flight. Catches flying insects in the air. Takes much of its food by swooping low over trees or lower growth, picking small creatures from the twigs or leaves without pausing. Young birds of other species are probably taken out of their nests.

Nesting

Courtship may involve aerial chases by both sexes; male may feed female. Nest site is in tall tree in open woodland, usually in pine, sometimes in cypress, cottonwood, or other tree. Typically places nest near top of one of the tallest trees available, more than 60' above ground. Nest (built by both sexes) is platform of small sticks, lined with soft lichens and Spanish moss. Eggs: 2, sometimes 1-3. Creamy white, marked with dark brown. Incubation is by both parents, about 28-31 days. Young: During first week after hatching, young are brooded almost continuously by female. Male brings food to nest, and female feeds it to young. After about 2-3 weeks, female also may hunt and bring food to nest. Young may move about in nest tree after about 5 weeks, first fly at about 5-6 weeks.

Eggs

2, sometimes 1-3. Creamy white, marked with dark brown. Incubation is by both parents, about 28-31 days. Young: During first week after hatching, young are brooded almost continuously by female. Male brings food to nest, and female feeds it to young. After about 2-3 weeks, female also may hunt and bring food to nest. Young may move about in nest tree after about 5 weeks, first fly at about 5-6 weeks.

Young

During first week after hatching, young are brooded almost continuously by female. Male brings food to nest, and female feeds it to young. After about 2-3 weeks, female also may hunt and bring food to nest. Young may move about in nest tree after about 5 weeks, first fly at about 5-6 weeks.

Conservation

Formerly more widespread in southeast, north as far as Minnesota, but disappeared from many areas in early 20th century. Current population apparently stable.

Range

Migration is early in both spring and fall, with Florida birds arriving February-March, departing August-September. Some migrate around Gulf of Mexico but most Florida birds apparently cross Caribbean; their migration is poorly known.

Listen

kli-kli-kli alarm calls given in flight
kli-kli-kli alarm calls given while perched

Similar Species

adult male

Magnificent Frigatebird

In North America, Magnificent Frigatebirds are seen most commonly in Florida. However, they also appear regularly along the Gulf Coast, and strays have turned up in many parts of the continent.

adult

White-tailed Kite

As recently as the 1940s, this graceful hawk was considered rare and endangered in North America, restricted to a few sites in California and Texas. In recent decades, it has increased greatly in numbers and spread into many new areas. It is often seen hovering on rapidly beating wings over open fields, looking for small rodents, its main food source. The introduction of the house mouse from Europe may have played a part in its increase; formerly, the kite fed almost entirely on voles.

adult male

Mississippi Kite

One of our most graceful fliers, this kite glides, circles, and swoops in pursuit of large flying insects. Despite the name, it is most common on the southern Great Plains. During recent decades, the planting of trees in shelterbelts and towns has made it possible for this bird to nest in many areas where it was formerly scarce; many towns on the southern plains now have their own nesting colonies of Mississippi Kites.

Vireo

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