White-tailed KiteElanus leucurus

adult
Brian K. Wheeler/VIREO
juvenile
Alan David Walther/VIREO
juvenile
Brian K. Wheeler/VIREO
adult
Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO
adult
Thomas McNish M./VIREO

Description

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.

Habitat

Open groves, river valleys, marshes, grasslands. Found in a wide variety of open habitats in North America, including open oak grassland, desert grassland, farm country, marshes. Main requirements seem to be trees for perching and nesting, and open ground with high populations of rodents.

Feeding Diet

Mostly small rodents. Specializes on small rodents that are active by day in open country, particularly voles and house mice. Other items in diet, mostly of minor importance, include pocket gophers, harvest mice, rats, shrews, young rabbits, sometimes birds. Rarely may eat snakes, lizards, frogs, large insects.

Feeding Behavior

Hunts mostly by flying over open country, pausing frequently to hover and study the ground; on sighting prey, it dives, catching prey in its talons.

Nesting

In courtship, male flies near female in odd hovering with wings in sharp "V," calling; male feeds female. Nest site is in top of tree, usually 20-50' above ground, sometimes higher or lower depending on available sites. Live-oak often chosen as nest site. Nest (built by both sexes) is a good-sized platform of sticks and twigs, lined with grasses, weeds, Spanish moss. Eggs: Usually 4, sometimes 5, rarely 3-6. May tend to lay larger clutches in years when rodents are abundant. Eggs creamy white, blotched with shades of warm brown. Incubation is by female, 26-32 days. Male usually perches nearby, and brings food to female during incubation. Young: Female broods young while they are small; male brings food, and female feeds it to nestlings. Later, prey is dropped into nest, and young feed on it themselves. Young are able to fly at about 30-35 days, but may return to nest to sleep or to be fed for some time after. Adults may nest a 2nd time in same season, and if so, young from first nesting may be driven from territory.

Eggs

Usually 4, sometimes 5, rarely 3-6. May tend to lay larger clutches in years when rodents are abundant. Eggs creamy white, blotched with shades of warm brown. Incubation is by female, 26-32 days. Male usually perches nearby, and brings food to female during incubation. Young: Female broods young while they are small; male brings food, and female feeds it to nestlings. Later, prey is dropped into nest, and young feed on it themselves. Young are able to fly at about 30-35 days, but may return to nest to sleep or to be fed for some time after. Adults may nest a 2nd time in same season, and if so, young from first nesting may be driven from territory.

Young

Female broods young while they are small; male brings food, and female feeds it to nestlings. Later, prey is dropped into nest, and young feed on it themselves. Young are able to fly at about 30-35 days, but may return to nest to sleep or to be fed for some time after. Adults may nest a 2nd time in same season, and if so, young from first nesting may be driven from territory.

Conservation

North American population has been increasing and spreading since about the 1930s, invading many new areas where it was never known historically. Has also spread and increased in American tropics with clearing of forest.

Range

No regular migration, but wanders widely.

Listen

grating calls

Similar Species

adult

Swallow-tailed Kite

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.

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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