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Photo Credit: Dave Cagnolatti & Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Elanus leucurus
DESCRIPTION: White-tailed kites (Elanus leucurus) are medium-sized hawks belonging in the Order Falconiformes, Family Accipitridae, and Subfamily Accipitrinea. Adult birds are 13 to 15 inches in length with a 40 inch wingspan. They have red eyes and a short dark hooked beak. Adults have long white squared-off tails, white heads, white bellies, and white under wing coverts. The wings have under wing primary feathers that darken toward their outer portions. The back feathers tend to be pale gray in color with an upper wing flight feather that, like the under wing primary feathers, darken toward the outer extremities of the wing. The male and female of this species tend to be similar in size and coloration, with the only visible difference being the female’s slightly darker back. The juvenile birds appear to have many similarities with adult white-tailed kites. However, exceptions to this can be found in their yellow eyes, white-tipped feathers on their back, buffy streaks on their breast and tail, a dark band around the tip of the tail, and a brown head, nape, and back.
DISTRIBUTION: White-tailed kites are found from the southern portions of South America to as far north as Washington State in the United States. Their range in North America is mostly isolated to portions of Washington, Oregon, the southern tip of Florida, and areas throughout Mexico. There also have been vagrant sightings reported in various locations throughout the United States. Although their populations were once declining to low numbers in the early 1900s, there has been an overall increase in numbers throughout their distribution since 1940.
HABITAT: White-tailed kites are found in a variety of habitats throughout their summer and winter range. Although the habitats they inhabit are different, they all share the common component of being open. These habitat types are made up in part by savannas, marshes, open woodlands, desert grasslands, partially cleared lands, and cultivated fields.
FEEDING HABITS: Like other hawks, white-tailed kites are predatory in nature. Kites hunt in flight looking for small mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. It is believed that small mammals make up the majority of their diet. White-tailed kites are known to almost exclusively hunt for their prey by using a hovering technique. In doing this, kites hover between five to twenty-five meters in the air by facing into the wind watching for potential prey. The most common times to see this aerial display are in the first and last hours of the day, either due to the cooler temperatures during this time period or the increased prey movement during these earlier and later times of day.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: White-tailed kites do not migrate and have varying home range sizes determined by prey abundance. They are known to be communal roosters during the non-breeding season, with males and immature of the year also roosting communally during the breeding season. These kites form monogamous pair bonds during the breeding season. These bonds are formed during courtship where both sexes perform flights, called flutter flights, which consist of flapping their wings in quick short strokes in order to attract mates. Once pairs have been formed, the hawks breed and prepare for their offspring. Nests are built mainly in the upper one-third portion of many different size and species of trees or shrubs. Females begin laying eggs in February and end in October, with a peak laying time occurring in May and June. The females will lay between three to six eggs and will be the exclusive incubators and care givers to the altricial young. During this period of incubation until the fledging period, females will not leave the nest and are dependant on males to provide the food they need. Pairs normally only have one brood per year, but two broods per year seems to be a common occurrence.
All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Moore, J. 2000. Grassland Bird Conservation Plan. California Partners in Flight. http://www.prbo.org/calpif/htmldocs/species/grassland/wtkiacct.html
Sibley, D. A. 2003. The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Eastern North America. Chanticleer Press, Inc, New York. 93 pp.
White-tailed Kite. South Dakota Birds and Birding.
White-tailed Kite Identification tips. United States Geological Survey.
AUTHOR: Justin Brock, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, September, 2008