BIRD OF THE WEEK: February 19, 2016
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Elanoides forficatus
HABITAT: Bottomland, riparian, and swamp forests during breeding; humid lowland forests in the winter
The Swallow-tailed Kite is unmistakable in flight, with long, pointed wings and a deeply forked tail. This graceful bird rarely flaps its wings while flying but almost continuously moves its tail, sometimes to nearly 90 degrees, enabling the bird to maintain a flight path, make a sharp turn, or circle.
In the southern United States, the species is becoming an increasingly common sight. Our work with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative is helping to guide forest management techniques that benefit landowners while maintaining habitat for Swallow-tailed Kite. (In other parts of the U.S., our work with SFI is benefiting other other threatened birds, including Golden-winged Warbler.)
In the United States, Swallow-tailed Kites breed from coastal South Carolina to Florida and west to Louisiana and east to Texas; these U.S. birds migrate to the northern half of South America for the winter. The majority of the world's Swallow-tailed Kites, which comprise a genetically distinct population, are resident in Central and South America, Mexico, and the West Indies. This lowland habitat is important to many other neotropical migrants such as Wood Thrush.
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The Swallow-tailed Kite's main prey are flying insects such as dragonflies and cicadas, which they capture and eat on the wing. This is such an aerial species that the birds even drink on the wing, skimming across the water's surface like a large swallow to collect water in their beaks.
These aerial acrobats snag snakes, lizards, and even nestlings and eggs as they skim across the treetops. Unusual for a raptor, the birds eat fruit, especially on their wintering grounds.
During courtship, Swallow-tailed Kites spend a lot of time diving, chasing, and vocalizing. When ready to nest, they build a shallow cup of twigs, lined with moss or other soft vegetation. Pairs build their nests high in the crowns of trees, often choosing pines. Successful nesting requires tall, living trees and nearby open areas to hunt prey.
Swallow-tailed Kites are unusually gregarious as raptors go, and several pairs may nest in close proximity. The birds may roost communally at night, and some pre-migratory roosts may attract hundreds of birds. They also migrate in large groups that can number in the thousands.
The Swallow-tailed Kite's U.S. breeding range formerly included at least 16 states, but is now restricted to just six states in the Southeast, with most of the population breeding in Florida. Only a small percentage of the world's population breeds in the U.S.; while the species is still of conservation concern there, surveys show that its former population decline has stabilized, and may even be increasing slightly.
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