Swallow-tailed Kite

Elanoides forficatus

Image by Todd Schneider, DNR
  • Hawks, Osprey, Harriers, Eagles, Kites
  • Falconiformes
  • Gavilan tijereta
  • Milan à queue fourchue

Spreading its forked tail as it soars, the Swallow-tailed Kite looks like a flying star. This black and white raptor patrols the air over the wooded blackwater rivers and wetlands of the southeastern United States. Its nimble flight requires little exertion and allows this kite to eat on the wing. In North America, the primary cause of its steep decline is the loss of wetlands.

Appearance Description
The Swallow-tailed Kite is a large but light raptor, weighing only 15 ounces on average and measuring 22 inches long with a 51 inch wingspan. Most often seen in flight, it sports a long, forked tail and long, narrow wings. It appears small-headed. At all times of year, the adults are black and white. The head, neck, lower body, and underwing linings are white. The eye, small bill, upper body, upper wing, and tail are black. On the underwing, the black of the outer wing narrows to a point along the wing's rear edge and just touches the body. Usually, some of the black upper parts have a blue caste, which is likely created by the Swallow-tailed Kite's powder feathers. The upper parts of South American birds have a green caste.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
In North America, the Swallow-tailed Kite breeds at a few scattered locations in the southeastern coastal plane, from extreme east Texas to South Carolina. The greatest breeding densities occur in Florida's peninsula, the only place where the range is continuous. In the 1800's, the Swallow-tailed Kite nested as far north as Wisconsin and ranged over as many as 21 eastern states. A population of Swallow-tailed Kites also breeds from southern Mexico through Central America and much of South America. North American kites winter in South America, but blend into resident populations, so that their exact distribution is not understood. In 1996, satellite tracking followed 6 birds from Florida to southeastern Brazil
In North America, breeding colonies favor woodlands with trees that rise well above the canopy and with ready access to wet prairies or marshes for food. Mature, forested wetlands dominated by slash pines and cyprus are typical breeding habitat in Florida. River bottom, hard forests are used in South Carolina, where nests are placed in Loblolly Pines that average 104 feet tall. A mosaic of wetland habitats with various heights is a key characteristic. Non-native Australian pine offers good height, but often fails to support nests. In Central and South America, the Swallow-tailed Kite breeds in humid lowland forests and cloud forests. Large trees are also important for communal roosts, as the kites stage before fall migration. Wintering habitats are not well documented.
The Swallow-tailed Kite captures and eats much of its prey on the wing by plucking it from vegetation or snatching it from the air. The diet shifts to the most available food sources and includes many insects, snakes, the chicks of other bird species, and frogs. Fairly unique among raptors, this kite also eats fruit in winter - from the rubber tree and the macurije tree (Matayba oppositifolia). Its thick, spongy stomach lining appears well adapted to absorb the stings of wasps, bees, and fire ants. Other insects in its diet are grasshoppers, leaf-footed bugs, and palmetto weevils. Many larvae are consumed, and the Swallow-tailed Kite will bring an entire wasp's nest to its own nest. Adults rarely eat on a perch, and this kite often feeds in loose groups.
The Swallow-tailed Kite probably forms pairs before reaching the United States in spring. Bonding rituals have not been identified, but the pair chooses a nest site usually within 80 to 750 yards of other Swallow-tailed Kite nests. Near the top of a tall tree, they usually build a new stick nest but sometimes reoccupy an old one. The nest is lined with lichen, Spanish Moss, and pine needles, which help hold the sticks together. Without actually helping, non-breeding kites often attempt to participate in the nesting process, but are rejected. For 28 days, the pair incubate 2-3 whitish eggs marked with reddish brown. Nesting Swallow-tailed Kites may travel as far as 15 miles in search of concentrated food sources. The male brings food to the female during the first half of the nesting cycle, and she tears it up for the chicks. In many nests, the smaller, younger chick dies from a combination of starvation and aggression from its older sibling. After 4 weeks, the remaining chick begins to flex and flap its wings. It fledges about a week later. Some young Swallow-tailed Kites remain close to the nest site, but many move with their parents and may continue to be fed until migration.
The migratory habits of this kite are not completely understood. In spring, early migrants arrive in Florida in late February, and dates for Texas are probably similar, since nesting starts in mid-March. Migration is likely to follow more than one route over the Gulf of Mexico and around the Gulf, through Central America and Mexico. Before fall migration, adults and young stage in large roosts, which are empty by late September. Fall migrants form small flocks that soar to high altitudes and appear to segregate by age, with juveniles departing last and probably on their own.
  • 150,000
  • 150,000
Population Status Trends
Prior to the 20th Century, this kite was common across much of the south. John James Audubon reported it as abundant south of Kentucky. In states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, that abundance has become rarity. Outside of Florida, Swallow-tailed Kites are spread thinly, with fewer than 100 pairs breeding in a state. In 1998 and 1999, Texas's Survey and Monitoring Project found only 2 nest sites. From 1966 to 2006, the overall population appeared to increase.
Conservation Issues
Extirpated from at least 12 states, the Swallow-tailed Kite is listed as Threatened, Endangered, or Imperiled in Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Habitat loss, collection of its highly-prized eggs, and widespread shooting of adults decimated a thriving population in the 19th Century. The on-going conversion of forested wetlands to agriculture, residential lots, and shopping malls prevents this raptor from recovering. Reintroduction of the Swallow-tailed Kite has always failed. Therefore, the challenge is to reintegrate and expand its fragmented habitats, like the moist slash pine forest.

The last breeding stronghold of the Swallow-tailed Kite in the United States, Florida, may determine its future in North America. Between the 1780's and the 1980's, Florida lost nearly 9.3 million acres, or 46%, of its wetlands, the greatest loss of acreage for any state. More specifically, 90,000 acres of Florida's forested wetlands were destroyed between the mid-1970's and the mid-1980's. Agriculture accounted for two thirds of this destruction, while urbanization consumed the other third. By 1989, only 12% of the state's pine forests were standing. The battle over Glade County's Fisheating Creek is typical. In its mature wetland forests, the Swallow-tailed Kite breeds in good numbers, but the land is privately owned, and development started along the creek in 1989. Protected as a Wildlife Management Area since the late 1990's, Fisheating Creek now provides habitat for the kite and other Threatened and Endangered species, like the Florida Scrub Jay and the Florida Panther. But in Florida, public lands can only support approximately 200 pairs of these kites. More cooperation from private landowners is needed.

South Carolina has a Swallow-tailed Kite conservation program that includes education in the public schools, brochures, a website, a census campaign that enlists the public, a hotline for sightings, outreach for landowners, and a goal of 400 nesting pairs statewide. Discovery of loose nesting colonies has helped expand conservation lands. Since its wintering grounds were discovered in 1996, conservationists in the United States and Brazil have been working together to preserve the Swallow-tailed Kite.
What You Can Do
Celebrate spring and the return of the Swallow-tailed Kite to Florida. The Big "O" Birding Festival ("O" is for Lake Okachobee), held the last week of March in Moore Haven, Florida, features this elegant kite.

Help count Swallow-tailed Kites in a local census. South Carolina has a report form online for any sightings of this state endangered bird. For an overview of the program, see the press release from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.
More Information
To learn more about the Swallow-tailed Kite in South Carolina see and in Texas see.

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources.
Natural History References
Cely, John E. "Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficutus." South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, 2006. 4 pages. Accessed 1 June 2007.

Meyer, K. D. 1995. Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). In The Birds of North America, No. 138 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Conservation Status References
Dahl, Thomas E. 1990. Wetlands losses in the United States 1780's to 1980's. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.

Hefner, J. M., B. O. Wilen, T. E. Dahl, and W. E. Frayer. 1994. Southeast Wetlands: Status and Trends, Mid-1970's to Mid-1980's. U. S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, Atlanta, GA. Accessed 30 May 2007.

Meyer, K. D. 1995. Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). In The Birds of North America, No. 138 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Meyer, Kenneth D. "Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficatus." Florida's Breeding Bird Atlas (January 6, 2003). Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Accessed 30 May 2007.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.