Sky Fliers: The Swallow-tailed Kite

It’s that time of year! Swallow-tailed Kites are returning to Florida from their winter homes in South America. You will often spot these large, distinct black and white birds soaring and cutting through the air as they feed while flying.

Swallow-tailed Kite soaring through the air. Photo Credit: By Everglades NPS from Homestead, Florida, United States (Swallow Tailed Kite, NPSPhoto, Rodney Cammauf) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Swallow-tailed Kites can be identified by their long, slender, pointed wings, but more distinctly by their very pointed and forked tail. Their head and bellies are bright white, with some white also extending on to the wing and tail. This white is contrasted by black along the edge and tip of the wings and tail.

They use their forked tail to navigate through the air, like a rudder on a boat. In flight, they feed mostly on flying insects. It has been noted that Swallow-tailed Kites have frequently been seen bringing whole wasp nests back to their nests to feed on the larvae. Once they finish eating the young wasps, they will incorporate the empty wasp nest into their nesting structure.

Unlike the adults, who mostly feed on stinging and biting insects, the diet of young Swallow-tailed Kites mostly consists of small vertebrates (things with a backbone) such as treefrogs, lizards, baby birds, and snakes. Often, adult males will go out hunting for these prey by snatching them from trees and bushes while in flight, grabbing them with their feet. Once males return to the nest with a catch, they pass it off to the female, who breaks up the prey into small pieces and feeds it to the young.

Swallow-tailed Kites are often found in habitats near water, places like swamps, forests near a body of water (river, lake or pond), and marshes. They prefer tall trees for nesting sites near open spaces that support a healthy population of prey species so they can feed their young. It can take up to two weeks for a mating pair to build a nest together. The nest material mostly consists of twigs, lichen and Spanish moss. Nests of Swallow-tailed Kites are about one to two feet wide and vary from six inches to a foot tall with a dip in the middle for laying and incubating eggs. It is typical for these birds to build a new nest each year, but they may repair and reuse an old nest, although this is less common.

When you see Swallow-tailed Kites soaring in circles, twisting and turning in the air just above the trees, this is often an indication that a nest is nearby. This is one way they show and defend their territories. More than one mating pair may nest near each other and will often perch together as a community of Swallow-tailed Kites. So don’t be surprised if you see more than two circling overhead.

If you want to learn more about these sky fliers, consider attending Brooker Creek Preserve’s program titled “The Story of Swallow-Tailed Kites and the People Who Track Them” on Saturday, April 1st at 10:30am in Tarpon Springs.