Some bird enthusiasts consider the swallow-tailed kite the most interesting bird in Florida.
With its deeply forked swallow tail and bold black-and-white plumage, it is unmistakable in the summer skies above farm fields, pine forests and hardwood swamps. Juvenile birds can be identified by the lack of the deeply forked tail.
Gracefully soaring with barely a wingbeat and maneuvering with twists of its incredible tail, it pursues and plucks grass hoppers, dragonflies, frogs, lizards, small snakes, fruit and even nestling birds from tree branches and minnows from surface waters.
They also drink on the wing like a swallow, swooping low to snatch water from the surface of a river or lake. Kites capture prey, feed and drink entirely while flying on the wing.
They are the largest of the American kites. In a healthy ecosystem, they can grow up to 24 inches, including the distinctive tail, which can be 12 to 15 inches in length, and a wingspan of up to 50 inches.
The swallow-tailed kite is fun to watch; hanging motionless in the air, swooping and gliding, even rolling upside down and then zooming high in the air with little motion of its wings.
After spending the fall and winter in South America, kites arrive in early March and April to breed. They are most obvious at this time of the year as they carry sticks, Spanish moss and other nesting material to their chosen nest site. They build nests of small sticks woven with this moss, preferably in a tall cypress or pine tree. These trees emerge from a canopy of prey-rich woodlands, like those of swamps and pine savannas.
Highly social for a raptor, they often nest in loose colonies and forage and hunt in small flocks. After rearing its young in a treetop nest, these kites migrate back to their wintering grounds as far south as Amazonia in South America. In these winter tropics, they are found in both lowland rain forest and mountain cloud forest habitats.
Although the historic range of swallow-tailed kites extended up the Mississippi River watershed as far as Minnesota and Wisconsin, populations had plummeted by the early 1900s with the industrial age of civilization.
Today, kites occur mostly in our state, although they may be found in six other southeastern Gulf States. As with many wildlife species, their greatest threat is habitat destruction.
However, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, with strong regulations against hunting, their populations grew between 1966 and 2014.
Partners in Flight, an international bird conservation organization, estimates the global population of the swallow-tailed kite at about 150,000. Management geared toward habitat protection aims to safeguard the existing Florida population and gradually expand the small sub-populations scattered throughout the Southeastern coastal plain.
Both William Bartram, colonial botanist in 1774, and John James Audubon, renowned ornithologist in the 1820s, observed and described this bird in Florida. Audubon’s 1821 powerful painting of this kite capturing a snake is considered among some of his finest artwork.
To see swallow-tailed kites, keep your eyes on the skies, as these light and graceful birds spend most of the day aloft, either skimming the treetops or soaring up high. Remember that these birds migrate south after the breeding season, so summer is our prime time to look for them.
To contact Mike Adams, email email@example.com.