Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
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.