Beak of the Week – Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus)

Family: Accipitridae

By Jon Piasecki, Houston Audubon Conservation Technician

The Swallow-tailed Kite is one of the most beautiful and unique birds that can be seen in North America. This species is present year-round through much of South America and can only be seen in the United States during the migration and breeding seasons. Populations of Swallow-tailed Kite breed throughout much of the southeastern United States including a portion of eastern Texas. Perhaps the most defining feature of these birds is their long, forked tail (hence the name). Swallow-tailed Kites have a very clean white head and underside which contrasts with a dark black tail and back. Juveniles can look identical to adults but sometimes have a slight buffy coloration in the head and chest.

Swallow-tailed Kites are often seen soaring high in the sky overhead. They utilize their long tail in flight by rotating it to help steer in different directions. These birds usually capture and swallow their prey midair, with no need to land to finish foraging like other raptors. Swallow-tailed Kites typically eat insects such as wasps, dragonflies, beetles, and grasshoppers which they can catch in flight. However, this species is also known to feed on smaller vertebrates like frogs and lizards. During the breeding season, a male kite will capture prey and carry it back to the nest in its feet where it gives the food to the female so she can shred it and feed it to the young.

Swallow-tailed Kites typically build their nests in the tallest trees located in open woodlands. By doing so, this allows the adults to have a great view of the nest’s surroundings, making it easier to defend. Both adults contribute to building the nest using materials such as lichen, moss, and sticks from cypress or pine trees. The clutch size of Swallow-tailed Kites can be between 1 to 3 eggs, which can take up to a full month to hatch. Once hatched, the chicks remain in the nest for over another month while being cared for by their parents.

Swallow-tailed Kites have made their way back up along the Texas coast already this spring. Individuals have been seen all around the Houston area including Galveston Island, High Island, and League City. Make sure to look high in the sky for a chance to see these birds!

 Visit our Bird Gallery to read about other Texas birds! 

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