Have you noticed these large birds gliding, soaring and swooping above Florida’s Adventure Coast? With their four-foot wingspan, bold black and white plumage and long, deeply forked tail, these beautiful raptors are a joy to watch.
These migratory birds are spring and summer sights in Florida, typically arriving in early March to breed. Contrary to many migratory species, Florida is their northern/summer destination; their winter home is in South America, where they also live year round. They depart Florida starting in August.
Look up to see these magnificent black and white birds around expanses of field, marsh and river areas here in Nature’s Place to Play.
A distinctive feature of the Swallow-tailed Kite is its social behavior. Often observed are communal night roosts of thirty or more birds.
Graceful for its size, this raptor sports a wingspan of 48-53 inches and is 20 to 25 inches in length. Seeing one overhead will keep your attention for more than a few minutes. Sometimes circling just above the treetops as they search the ground below for food, a pair of good binoculars will make you feel as though you are flying with them. At other times, they are so high you can barely see them except for the characteristic shape.
Called by some the “coolest bird on the planet,” recognize the Swallow-tailed Kite by its signature deeply forked tail. Its bold black and white coloring is sharp and clear against blue skies. From below, the underside wing is vibrant white and the flight feathers and tail a gleaming black.
It is unmistakable when spotted, gliding with wings barely moving. The Swallow-tailed Kite spends most of the day aloft, rarely flapping its wings. It maneuvers with twists of that extraordinary tail. They eat while flying.
Aerial acrobatics allow them to eat mostly flying insects, but they feed their young with more substantial fare. In spite of their large size, these raptors can pluck frogs, lizards, snakes and nestling birds from tree branches while in flight, carrying the catch with their feet to chicks. Not as common, they also may dine on fish, bats and fruit. Males do the hunting and transfer food to the nesting female; she tears it up and feeds the young.
Remarkably, Swallow-tailed Kites eat many stinging insects. Fire ants and wasps are a dietary staple. They sometimes return to their nest with a whole wasp nest, eat the larvae, and then add the insect nest into their own nest.
For habitat, they like cypress swamps, marsh wetlands, slash pine forests and hardwood hammocks, all of which are a huge part of Florida’s Adventure Coast They require tall trees for nesting, and open areas where small prey is abundant to feed the nestlings.
The end of Florida’s summer rainy season and the onset of typically drier winter months motivates them to migrate south. The wet and more humid conditions of South America are their winter destination.
A sharp decline in their numbers is due mainly to destruction of habitat. In Florida, they must often nest in flimsy Australian pines where wind sometimes causes the nest to fall.
An estimate of the Swallow-tailed Kite global population is 150,000. Prior to the early 1900’s they nested in at least 21 states; the present limited distribution is in Florida and six other states. The bird has no federal listing status of protection but is of critical conservation concern by all state agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners in Flight, and conservation organizations.
Look up and enjoy the Swallow-Tailed Kite, a special Florida spring and summer sight.
Feature image copyright Scott Simmons