Swallow-tailed Kite

Scientific Name:
Elanoides forficatus
Population Status:
Lower Risk
Body Length:
22-26 inches
Wingspan:
4 feet
Weight:
13 ounces

Did you know?

  • Swallow-tailed Kites, like all birds of prey, eat meat. But, they have also been observed eating fruit from trees in Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil and other places.
  • Swallow-tailed Kites are very social birds. They flock together, especially during migration, and even nest in loose colonies.
  • In 1993, someone observed a Swallow-tailed Kite in Fuertaventura, Canary Islands – a long way from home for this bird! It is unclear whether this was a wild bird that had flown off track or a captive bird that had escaped.

How The Peregrine Fund is helping

Though The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with Swallow-tailed Kites, our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve raptors on a global scale. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.

Where they live

The Swallow-tailed Kite is unmistakable in flight. Its unique silhouette of pointed wings and forked tail can be seen high up in the sky throughout much of the Americas. In the United States, it can be found in South Carolina all the way south to the upper Florida Keys, west to Louisiana and probably eastern Texas. But its range doesn't stop there. This beautiful kite can also be found in Central and South America, where it is a year-round resident, and in the West Indies.

Like many raptor species, kites living in the northernmost portion of their range head south during the colder winter months to find food. During their migration, some Swallow-tailed Kites travel as far south as South America – a flight of 3,000 miles or more! However, biologists have observed a few of these birds of prey in Florida in December and January.

Apart from having a large geographical range throughout the Americas, these birds are also found in diverse habitats. They can be seen hunting or soaring in open country, bottomland forests, pine forests, swamps, wet savannas, and even areas of fragmented patches of forest.

What they do

If there were a competition for the most graceful, most elegant flyer of the bird world, the Swallow-tailed Kite would definitely have a shot at the prize. These raptors spend a lot of time in the air, floating almost effortlessly in the sky. Like other birds of prey, they sometimes use thermals, or air currents, to help them stay in the air without exerting much effort. If you have ever seen a vulture fly, you know they spend a lot of time circling overhead, but very little time actually flapping their wings. As warm air currents rise, they help hold the birds up like an invisible hand. Air currents are particularly useful during migration, when birds travel very long distances in relatively short amounts of time.

When the Swallow-tailed Kite migrates, it will often congregate, or join up with, many other individuals of the same species. It can sometimes be seen in large groups, often soaring 1,600 feet up in the air. Now that would be a sight to see!

Swallow-tailed Kites spend a lot of time in the air even when they are thirsty. Instead of landing on the ground beside a water source like many raptors do, these birds quench their thirst while they are airborne. They don't order a drink from a flight attendant, like we would on a plane. Instead, they use their aerobatic skills to skim gracefully over the surface of a lake or pond and dip their beaks into the water to get a drink.

Why they need our help

Some scientists believe that Swallow-tailed Kite populations may have increased in some areas, but why it disappeared from most of its formerly extensive breeding range in the central United States remains a mystery. Many believe that shooting by humans may have played an important role. Though these raptors are better protected today, habitat loss continues to be a threat. In some areas, people are cutting down stands of tall trees where Swallow-tailed Kites flock together in summer before migration begins. This could be having a very bad effect on the species. Like all birds of prey, they need our help to stay safe.

What they eat

Just as Swallow-tailed Kites drink water while in the air, they hunt from the air, too. They eat termites and ants, but also take lizards, snakes, tree frogs, vine snakes, geckos, wasps, caterpillars, bird eggs and nestlings. These aerial birds often pick their prey off of tree tops while flying over the forest canopy. They also grab insects in mid-air and eat them while flying. Someone observed this species capturing a caterpillar on a leaf while flying; it took both the leaf and the caterpillar and later ate the caterpillar and dropped the leaf!

Biologists watched a flock of about 150 Swallow-tailed Kites swooping low over the ground as they fed on a swarm of bees. The kites caught the bees with their feet and then ate them, all while in flight. Though they capture a lot of their prey in the air, they do hunt from a perched position as well. Biologists have seen kites sitting on termite nests to capture these insects as they exit their home.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this raptor's diet is the fact that apart from all the animals and insects it consumes, it also eats fruit. Yes, fruit! It has been seen eating fruits of several different trees in Central and South America.

Nest, eggs and young

During courtship, Swallow-tailed Kites spend a lot of time diving, chasing, and vocalizing. When they are ready to nest, they build shallow cup nests made of twigs lined with moss or other soft vegetation. Pairs build their nests very high in the crowns of tall trees. Unlike many raptors which are very territorial and don't like others of their species nesting too close them, Swallow-tailed Kites are much more social. Several pairs may nest in close proximity to each other. Sometimes even birds who aren't breeding may hang out nearby, though they usually don't get too close to the active nests!

Despite their social nature, Swallow-tailed Kites are less tolerant of other species that enter their nesting territory, such as vultures and crows. When this occurs, the kites will vocalize and and may return to the nest to help protect their young against potential predators.

The female lays two or three eggs, which are white with dark brown markings. Both parents share nesting duties. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs to keep them at a safe temperature so that the embryos can develop into healthy chicks. The eggs are incubated for approximately 28-30 days. Though it may not seem like it, it is a lot of work to do little else but sit for an entire month!

Once the chicks hatch, both parents take responsibility for feeding their young. The chick will remain in the nest for about 40 days before it is ready to fly.

Swallow-tailed Kite and The World Center for Birds of Prey

The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about all birds of prey. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos, and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets to quizzes to costumes await you. The visitor center has many live raptors on display. This is a great chance to see birds of prey up close and learn about the wonderful and interesting adaptations they have in order to survive in their respective habitats. There is also a touch table with feathers and other natural objects available for exploration.

Conservation Projects


Photos needed! If you are a photographer and would be willing to donate photos of a Swallow-tailed Kite for use on this site, please contact grin@peregrinefund.org

What makes a raptor a raptor?

Research Resources