With its grace and beauty people instantly start to admire this bird when they see it soaring effortlessly through the skies. The long wings and the elongated, deeply forked tail allows him to perform amazing aerial evolutions, combined with its charming beauty and ethereal appearance, it’s not hard to understand why this bird is so popular among birdwatchers, naturalists and photographers.
Here’s what you need to know about the swallow-tailed kite:
Currently there are two recognised subspecies of the swallow-tailed kite, the Elanoides fortificatus fortificatus, that can be found in eastern and northern Mexico as well as the southeastern states of the U.S., and the Elanoides fortificatus yetapa, that spreads across South America, from southern Mexico to the northern parts of Argentina.
The Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus was the first one to describe this species, giving to this bird of prey the name of Falco fortificatus. Even though for a long time it has been classified as a Elaninae bird, the modern molecular analysis were able to demonstrate that it’s actually related to the Pernis and all the related species, that’s the reason why the swallow-tailed kite is classified in the Perninae subfamily.
They spend most of their time in flight, capturing and eating their food while in the air, rarely flapping their long wings, they just soar and through rotations of their tail they’re able to steer and perform tight turns.
- Scientific name: Elanoides fortificatus.
- Weight: 300 – 600 g.
- Wingspan: 112 – 136 cm.
- Age: It has a lifespan of 6 years.
- Diet: The swallow-tailed kite feeds on small reptiles and amphibians, bigger insects and also on small birds and their eggs as well as small bats. Always soaring, never stopping its flight while feeding.
- Habitat: This long-distance migrant species is usually found in the forests of humid areas, where trees of at least 30 m height can be easily found as well as food availability nearby, providing an ideal breeding spot.
- Threats: Least concern, however it has many threats throughout the wide range it covers during its long-distance migrations such as: shooting, destruction and degradation of nests and breeding habitat and human disturbance at the nesting spots.
The swallow-tailed kite measures between 50 and 70 cm in length with a wingspan that can go from 112 to 136 cm. The body of this graceful bird is characterised by a black and white contrast in its colouring, its flight feathers, feet, tail and beak are completely coloured in a deep shade of black. While male and female are similar, the juvenile’s colours are less bright.
The obvious characteristic that makes this bird promptly recognisable is the long and forked tail, measuring between 27,5 and 37 cm – this is something that the young swallow-tailed kite don’t have so accentuated.
The swallow-tailed kite is a long-distance migratory species, the specimens belonging to the E. f. fortificatus species, breeds in the southeastern states of the U.S. – from east Texas all the way to South Carolina and Florida (in the past this species was found further north, as far as Oklahoma, Kansas, Minnesota and Ohio). They then spend their winters in South America, mainly in Brazil, but some birds have been observed going further south to Argentina.
On the other hand the E. f. yetapa species covers a vast area that goes from southern Mexico expanding across the humid areas of central and south America through to Bolivia, Perù, Paraguay and Uruguay.
The swallow-tailed kite primary food sources are insects and small vertebrates, they capture these animals directly from the trees and plants while in flight and carry their bounty in their feet while returning to their nest.
When hunting they can be seen performing incredible aerial acrobatics, constantly swinging and rotating their tail with swift changes of direction, while scanning for nearby preys. When they catch something, the adult swallow-tailed kites is also able to swallow their food in the air.
The swallow-tailed kite is one of the earliest migrants, arriving to its U.S. reproduction grounds already in mid-February. Its breeding happens between March and May. The nest is usually placed really high on trees (never less than 30 m), usually building a brand new nest every year, only occasionally refurbishing an old one. The female usually lays two to four eggs, with an incubation period of up to 28 days, during which both the male and female incubate and provide for their little ones. After that, the chicks will need 36-42 days to be able to fly and leave their nest.
Because of the long-distance migration they travel each year, they also need to leave to reach their wintering destinations as early as July and the beginning August, leaving just enough time for a single breeding attempt each season.
Swallowed-tailed kites are extremely social birds, and love to be around each other. One of the way they find one another is to return to the same breeding spots year after year.
The swallow-tailed kite is not listed among the endangered or threatened species of the U.S., it is however considered endangered in South Carolina, threatened in Texas and rare species in Georgia.
The destruction of its residing habitat must be blamed for the decline of this species in north America; traditionally its breeding range covered up to 16 states of the U.S., this number is now down to only 7, with the majority of the breeding population concentrating to the southeastern states, and especially Florida. Shooting doesn’t seem to be a major threat to the swallow-tailed kite anymore, as it was before 1918, year in which shooting this and many other birds became illegal. The kite’s main threat is the habitat loss from urban and agriculture development, but also logging and other major alterations of the landscape.
Federico Fiorillo is an Italian nature guide and content writer based in the magnificent Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. He’s an avid hiker and snowboarder and he travels to the great wilderness areas of the world to see the wildlife and birds he’s passionate about.
In 2008 and 2011 he joined two Brazilian wildlife field trips in Bahia and decided that observing birds in their habitat was going to be one of his driving passions. He completed a birdwatching course with EBN Italia in 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 he travelled to South East Asia, Australia and the United States where he joined a photographic workshop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
From 2016 to 2018 he lives in New Zealand, where he collaborates in environmental projects at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, which since 1971 protects kiwi and other New Zealand native birds, among the projects he worked hands on the most rewarding was the one aiming to release Brown Kiwis into the wild.
In 2017, he completes a backcountry survival course obtaining the skillsets needed to thrive in-stead of just survive in the face of adversity in the wilderness. In 2017 he also joins a NZ Bird Photography Tour in Ulva Island and at the Royal Albatross Center of the Otago Peninsula, home to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony.
After his travels across the South Pacific, following his experiences in 2018 he moves in the Swiss Alps where he’s now a nature guide leading tours in the alpine region between Switzerland, Italy and France. Leading nature walks and overnight hiking trips, teaching tourists and locals the secrets of the plants and animals living in this alpine region.
Inspired by an alternative lifestyle he believes in the importance of being in connection with the natural environment and feels the responsibility of interpreting the natural wealth of a site, educating and informing other of the different aspects of that particular area.