The American swallow-tailed kite, Elanoides forficatus, is one of about 10 species of small hovering kites (subfamily Elaninae). This bird of prey can be found in the southeastern United States and south to northern Argentina, east of the Andes Mountain range. Experts estimate about 10 percent of the global population inhabits the United States, most of them in southern tip of Florida, although the population extends from South Carolina through Texas. In the winter the North American and Central American populations migrate to South America. Before migrating, North American birds congregate in very large numbers about three pre-migratory staging areas in Florida. They return to the US to nest in mid-February.
The swallow-tailed kite was named for its deeply forked, swallow-like black tail. Adults have long, thin wings that span 1.1-1.3 meters (3.7-4.2 feet) from tip to tip. This wingspan is several times the length of their body. Their long wings allow them to fly at high speeds, and their tail adds maneuverability making them graceful and adept flyers. American swallow-tailed kites have white heads, necks and bellies; their backs are iridescent black, with streaks of green, purple, and bronze. Juveniles are duller in color, with streaking on their heads and belly. They also have shorter tails, with white tips, but otherwise are similar in appearance to adults. Females are slightly larger than males but the sexes are difficult to distinguish.
Swallow-tailed kites occupy a variety of forested, open and wetland habitats including cypress and mangrove swamps, lakeshores and riparian forests, savanna and prairie, and freshwater and brackish marshes. South American and overwintering northern populations seek out tropical humid forests and cloud forests. They live at altitudes from sea level up to 1800 meters (6000 feet), but can wander up to altitudes of 3000 meters (10,000 feet). Swallow-tailed kites nest near sources of water in especially tall trees, anywhere from 18 to 40 meters above the ground. For nesting, they favor pine and cypress trees trees.
Swallow-tailed kites forage on the wing, in groups. Sometimes foraging groups include more than 100 individuals. Insects, which they catch and eat in mid-air, make up most of the adult diet. Adult birds also eat a small amount of vertebrate prey, such as amphibians, reptiles, eggs and hatchling birds, and occasional bats and fish. Fledglings, on the other hand, are fed a diet made up mostly of vertebrates (especially frogs). In the tropics, swallow-tailed kites also eat fruit. To drink, they scoop water in their beak as they fly.
Swallow-tailed kites roost in groups of up to 30 individuals. Though mostly silent, they can communicate with short, weak, high-pitched whistles and twitters, especially during the annual breeding season. Courtship starts in February. Swallow-tailed kites carry out courtship posturing, aero-acrobatic displays and males perform courtship feedings. Adults form monogomous pair bonds, meaning that they pair with just one mate for the whole breeding season, although they do not necessarily form the same pairs in subsequent seasons. They breed communally, in small colonies of 2-5 nests. Both parents build the nest, a platform of sticks and twigs lined with moss or lichens and concealed in foliage. Nests are reused and remodeled year after year, but it has not yet been determined whether the same adults return to the previous year’s nest. Females lay 2-4 eggs, and the parents share the job of incubating the eggs for about a month. Both parents protect and feed the young in the nest until they fledge and become independent, about eight weeks after hatching.
Before 1880, American swallow-tailed kites ranged to the northern Midwest. Habitat destruction and hunting has since reduced the North American population to the southern U.S. They are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act, listed as endangered in South Carolina, threatened in Texas, and "rare" in Georgia, but are not federally classified as a threatened species. Some estimate that populations in the US are increasing but it is unclear whether this is due to migration pattern changes or increases in absolute population numbers.
(BirdLife International 2012; Bouglougan 2016; Kilham 1980; Maganit 2007; Meyer et al. 2004; NatureServe 2015; Wikipedia 2016)
- BirdLife International. 2012. Elanoides forficatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2012: e.T22695017A40348308. Retrieved January 27, 2016 from http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T22695017A40348308.en.
- Bouglougan, N. Swallow-tailed kite. Oiseaux-birds article. Retrieved Jan 27, 2016 from http://www.oiseaux-birds.com/card-swallow-tailed-kite.html
- Kilham, L., 1980. Pre-nesting behavior of the Swallow-tailed Kite, including interference by an unmated male with a breeding pair. Raptor Research 14.1: 29-3.
- Maganti, J. 2007. "Elanoides forficatus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 12, 2016 at http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Elanoides_forficatus/
- Meyer, K. D., McGehee, S. M., and Collopy, M. W. 2004. Food deliveries at Swallow-tailed Kite nests in southern Florida. The Condor, 106(1), 171-176.
- NatureServe, January 2015. Elanoides forficatus - (Linnaeus, 1758). Retrieved January 29, 2015 from http://explorer.natureserve.org/servlet/NatureServe?searchName=Elanoides+forficatus
- Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 9 February 2016. Swallow-tailed kite. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Swallow-tailed_kite&oldid=704047071
Elanoides forficatus, otherwise known as the American swallow-tailed kite, is found primarily in the southeastern United States, from Louisiana to South Carolina. Most of the known population is centered in the southern tip of Florida. In the winter E. forficatus migrates to South America.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); neotropical (Native )
- Dunne, P. 1995. The Wind Masters: The Lives of North American Birds of Prey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
- Farrand, Jr., J. 1988. An Audubon Handbook: Eastern Birds. New York: Chanticleer Press, Inc.
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Breeding
Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) Breeding range extends from South Carolina south to Florida, and west to Louisiana and east Texas; and from southeastern Mexico (Chiapas) south through Central America to eastern Peru, Bolivia, northern Argentina, Paraguay, and southeastern Brazil (Meyer 1995). The species is resident in South America from the Amazon Basin to Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname. Range in the United States has contracted; formerly the species bred north to Minnesota (Meyer 1995). During the nonbreeding season, this species occurs primarily in the northern half of South America, rarely in Central America or northward (Sibley and Monroe 1990, Meyer 1995, AOU 1998). See Palmer (1988) for detailed account of range.
The most notable feature of E. forficatus is the deeply forked swallow-like tail, which distinguishes this kite species from its relatives, Mississippi kites and white-tailed kites. The structure of the tail enables this kite to fly well at low speeds. The wings are long and thin, enabling flight at high speeds as well.
Swallow-tailed kites are monomorphic. Adults have black wings with white undersides, white heads, necks, and underparts. The tail and upperparts are iridescent black, with streaks of green, purple, and bronze. Juveniles look similar to adults but with slightly streaked heads and underparts, as well as shorter white-tipped tails.
Swallow-tailed kites have a body length ranging from 49 to 65 cm. Wingspan is from 114 to 127 cm. The average weight of maled is 441 g and the average weight of females is 423 g, although females may be slightly larger in size.
Range mass: 423 to 441 g.
Range length: 49 to 65 cm.
Average length: 58 cm.
Range wingspan: 114 to 127 cm.
Average wingspan: 122 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; female larger
- Hausman, L. 1948. Birds of Prey of Northeastern America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Length: 58 cm
Weight: 475 grams
No other sympatric bird has all of the following characteristics: white head and belly, black wings with white underwing coverts, and a deeply forked black tail.
Swallow-tailed kites occupy wooded swamps, open forests, lake shores, and freshwater marshes. They nest near sources of water in tall trees, anywhere from 18 to 40 meters above the ground.
Range elevation: 0 (low) m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: forest
Aquatic Biomes: coastal
Wetlands: marsh ; swamp
Other Habitat Features: riparian
- Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc..
- National Geographic Society, 2002. Field Guide to the Birds of North America (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Library of Congress.
- Weidensaul, S. 2004. The Raptor Almanac. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.
- Wetmore, A. 1965. Water, Prey, and Game Birds of North America. Chicago: R.R. Donnelley and Sons Co.
Habitat and Ecology
Comments: This species occupies diverse vegetation types, from sea level to elevations up to 1,850 meters; occasionally individuals wander up to 3,000 meters (Stiles and Skutch 1989). Key features of habitat include tall, accessible trees for nesting and open areas for foraging; arid areas are avoided (Meyer 1995). In the United States, nesting and foraging habitats include various pine forests and savannas, cypress swamps and savannas, cypress-hardwood swamps, hardwood hammocks, mangrove (Avicennia) swamps, narrow riparian forests, prairies, and freshwater and brackish marshes. In the tropics, this kite occurs in humid lowland and upland forests, riparian forests, cloud forests, and pine forests (Meyer 1995, Stiles and Skutch 1989).
Nests are near the tops of trees that are higher than the surrounding stand, presumably to provide easier access to the nest (Brown et al. 1997, Snyder 1974, Meyer 1995, Meyer and Collopy 1995). In south Florida, nest trees were significantly taller than random trees (Meyer and Collopy 1995). Nests most often are 8-38 meters above the ground (Brown et al. 1997, Snyder 1974, Stiles and Skutch 1989). The average nest height in South Carolina was 23 meters; in Florida mean nest height ranged from 18.2-21.7 meters (Cely and Sorrow 1990, Meyer and Collopy 1995).
Pines are the preferred nest trees. Of 151 U.S. nests, 86 percent were in pines, 7 percent in cypress (Taxodium spp.) and 7 percent in mangrove (Meyer 1995). Most nests in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana were in loblolly pine (Pinus taeda; Cely and Sorrow 1990, Meyer 1995). Elsewhere in Louisiana and Texas, nests have been found in cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and water oak (Quercus nigra; Brown et al. 1997, Meyer 1995). In south Florida, 51 percent of nests were in slash pine (Pinus elliottii), 37 percent in cypress, 12 percent in Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia) and 6 percent in bay (Persea spp.; Meyer 1995).
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Temperate and sub-tropical (U.S. and Central America) populations are migratory. Spring migrants begin arriving in the United States (Florida) in early-mid February; fall migrants leave from late July through early September (Meyer 1995, Stevenson and Anderson 1994). In Florida, large numbers (over 2,200) gather in pre-migratory roosts (Bensen 1992, Meyer 1995, Meyer 1998, Millsap 1987, Millsap and Runde 1988). One bird banded as a nestling on Key Largo, Florida was shot approximately 6,500 kilometers away in southeastern Brazil (Mager 1967).
In Costa Rica, migrants arrive between late December and February, and depart between July and September (Stiles and Skutch 1989).
Most individuals that breed in the United States migrates southward from Florida to the Yucatan Peninsula across the Gulf of Mexico. Others migrate around the Gulf Coast south through eastern Mexico (see Farmer et al. 2008).
Satellite and VHF telemetry data have revealed a narrow migration corridor through eastern Central America, western Colombia, and southeastward around the margins of the Amazon Basin to southwestern Brazil, where marked birds from the U.S. have been consistently found wintering to the north, south, and southeast of the Pantanal (K. Meyer, unpubl. data).
Wintering kites associate with conspecifics of the southern subspecies, E. f. yetapa, which are breeding at this time, and gather nightly in large communal roosts similar to the pre-migration roosts described in Florida (K. Meyer, unpubl. data).
HOME RANGE AND TERRITORY
This species forages up to 24 kilometers from the nest in South Carolina and 22 kilometers from the nest in south Florida (Cely and Sorrow 1990, Meyer and Collopy 1995). The home ranges of three adults in south Florida that did not make extended forays varied from 5.3-30.8 square kilometers; a fourth adult that made long forays ranged over 117.1 square kilometers (Meyer and Collopy 1995). In South Carolina, five adults ranged over an average of 232 square kilometers (range = 89.2-360.4 square kilometers). However, when long forays were ignored, home range size averaged 12.2 square kilometers (range = 4.9-17.1 square kilometers; Cely and Sorrow 1990). Pairs defend from conspecifics an area extending less than 100 meters away from the nest (Meyer 1995).
Swallow-tailed kites are primarily insectivorous, snatching and feeding on flying insects in mid-air, but they are also known to capture other prey, such as snakes, frogs, and nestlings and fledglings. They do not hover and usually eat prey in mid-flight. They also drink in flight in a fashion similar to swallows, by skimming the water.
Animal Foods: birds; amphibians; reptiles; insects
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates, Insectivore )
Comments: Swallow-tailed kites forage by soaring or by flying closely over or under the tree canopy, and over shrubs or grass. Sometimes they forage in large groups composed of 10 to more than 100 individuals. Prey are captured with the talons while in flight by snatching them in the air or off the surface of vegetation. Food items are principally insects (including entire wasp nests) but also include frogs, lizards, snakes, nestling birds and, less frequently, bats, fruit, hatchling alligators, and fish (Meyer 1995, Stevenson and Anderson 1994). Fruit consumption is apparently confined to the tropics (Buskirk and Lechner 1978, Lemke 1979, Stiles and Skutch 1989). In Florida, the stomachs of eight kites collected in mid-July contained 98.5 percent insects, and 2.5 percent arthropods and vertebrates including a spider (Araneae), a mite (Acarina), a green treefrog (Hyla cinerea), an anole (Anolis carolinensis), and a bat (Pipistrellus subflavus). The majority of insects eaten were grasshoppers (Orthoptera; 42.4 percent), leaf-footed bugs (Coreidae; 19.2 percent), and palmetto weevils (Rhynchophorus cruenlatus; 12.7 percent; Lee and Clark 1993).
Observations of kites feeding young in the nest suggest that vertebrates are important food items for nestlings. For example, Snyder (1974) found that insects comprised only 5 percent of the food fed to young in three nests in Florida, whereas 88 percent was comprised of vertebrates (principally hylid frogs). Likewise, insects comprised 27 percent of food fed to young in eight Florida nests, but vertebrates comprised 65 percent (mostly frogs; Meyer and Collopy 1995).
This kite drinks by skimming low over lakes, ponds, rivers, or marshes (Meyer 1995).
There is little known about the role of wallow-tailed kites in their native ecosystem, although it can be surmised that they help control insect populations.
Little is known about predators of swallow-tailed kites, but fledglings are often preyed on by owls, especially great horned owls (Bubo virginianus).
- great horned owls (Bubo virginianus)
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 81 to >300
Comments: This species is represented by probably hundreds of local breeding populations, though these are difficult to circumscribe. The U.S. populations has just a few (>=3) premigration staging areas.
100,000 - 1,000,000 individuals
Comments: Total adult population size is unknown but presumably exceeds 100,000 (BirdLife International 2010).
The U.S. population comprises less than 10 percent of the global population (Meyer and Collopy 1990). Meyer (1995) estimated U.S. population at 800-1,150 pairs, or about 3,200-4,600 individuals at the end of the breeding season (Meyer and Collopy 1990). Florida probably supports 60-65% of the U.S. population (Meyer 1995). South Carolina's population, which lost more than 70% of known nesting habitat in 1989 because of Hurricane Hugo, has about 10-15% (or 110 pairs) of the total U.S. population; other southeastern states probably have fewer than 100 pairs each; no known data for other populations.
This species roosts communally (up to 30 individuals) at night during the nesting period and prior to migration (Bensen 1992, Haverschmidt 1977, Millsap 1987, Meyer 1995, Meyer 1998, Meyer and Collopy 1995).
Potential predators, especially of eggs and young, include common crow, turkey vulture, black vulture, red-shouldered hawk, peregrine falcon, sharp-shinned hawk, bald eagle, osprey, short-tailed hawk, red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, barred owl, raccoon, and monkeys (Gerhardt et al. 1991, cited in Meyer 1995, Meyer and Collopy 1995, Short 1974, Snyder 1974).
Strong winds, especially those associated with storms, can blow young from the nest or topple tall trees used for nesting (Cely and Sorrow 1990, Snyder 1974).
Life History and Behavior
Swallow-tailed kites communicate primarily through cries, short, weak, high-pitched whistles, and twitters, usually while hunting or during mating season. They also use visual displays, including postures associated with courtship and mating. Like other raptors, swallow-tailed kites, primarily use vision to hunt for food.
Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
There is no specific information available on the lifespan of E. forficatus, but the lifespan of one white-tailed kite was recorded to be nearly 6 years.
- Clapp, R., M. Klimkiewicz, J. Kennard. 1982. Longevity records of North American birds: Gaviidae through Alcidae. J. Field Ornithol, 53(2): 81-208. Accessed January 15, 2007 at http://elibrary.unm.edu/sora/JFO/v053n02/index.php.
Swallow-tailed kites are monogamous, although pair bonds are not necessarily maintained between breeding seasons. Females and males will approach each other on a horizontal tree limb. The female will quickly go under the limb or turn, bending forward with the wings extended. The male lands on her back and drapes his wings over the female, then mating occurs. There is also courtship feeding.
Mating System: monogamous
Swallow-tailed kites breed once per year, usually in April. They produce loud shrills, squealing calls, and whistles during the mating season. Females usually lay two eggs per clutch. The eggs are incubated for approximately 28 days, and the fledgling period lasts anywhere from 36 to 42 days. Fledglings can take an additional 2 weeks or more to become independent.
Breeding interval: Swallow-tailed kites breed once yearly.
Breeding season: The breeding season is short and usually occurs in the month of April.
Range eggs per season: 3 (high) .
Average eggs per season: 2.
Average time to hatching: 28 days.
Range fledging age: 36 to 42 days.
Range time to independence: 50 (low) days.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Not much is known about the degree of parental investment in swallow-tailed kites. Both parents incubate the eggs. When one parent comes in to sit on the eggs, the other flies straight up from the nest. The incoming parent hovers over the nest, and then gently settles down. Young are altricial. In their close relatives males bring back food while females watch the young and protect the nest. Towards the end of the nesting period both parents will hunt. After fledging the adults continue to provide food for their young.
Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female)
- Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc..
- Johnsgard, P. 1990. Hawks, Eagles, and Falcons of North America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- National Audubon Society, 2001. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
- Wetmore, A. 1965. Water, Prey, and Game Birds of North America. Chicago: R.R. Donnelley and Sons Co.
Nesting occurs in loose colonies, in groups of 2-5 nests, generally 75-700 meters apart (Meyer 1995). In south Florida, nearest nests averaged 673-730 meters apart (Meyer and Collopy 1995). Individuals often nest near sites that were used previously for nesting by swallow-tailed kites. In south Florida, 77 percent of nests sites were re-used and at 23.5 percent of these the original nest was re-used after being re-furbished. However, because birds were unmarked it is not known if sites were re-used by previous residents (Meyer and Collopy 1995).
Nesting occurs February-May in Costa rica and from early March-early June in the United States (Meyer 1995, Meyer and Collopy 1996, Stiles and Skutch 1989). Clutch size ranges from two to four eggs but is typically two (Terres 1991). The average of 151 U.S. clutches was 2.12 eggs, that of 11 Florida clutches was 1.91 eggs, and that of 18 Guatemala clutches was 1.83 eggs (Gerhardt et al. 1997, Meyer 1995). Incubation, conducted principally by the female, takes approximately 28 days in Florida and averages 31.5 days in Guatemala. Incubation begins when the first egg is laid and hatching is asynchronous (Gerhardt et al. 1997, Snyder 1974). The young are brooded by both sexes, although principally by the female. The nestling period is 36-42 days (Snyder 1974). There is no evidence of second-clutching even after nest or egg failure (Meyer 1995). Brood reduction sometimes occurs when younger nestlings starve or are killed outright by larger nestlings (Gerhardt et al. 1997, Meyer 1995).
Estimates of nesting success (percent of nests that fledged greater than or equal to 1 young) include 33 percent for Guatemala (Gerhardt et al. 1997), 41-80 percent for Florida (Meyer and Collopy 1995), and 72 percent for South Carolina (Cely and Sorrow 1990). Productivity estimates (number of young fledged per nest) for these same studies vary from 0.33 (Guatemala), 0.48-1.27 (Florida), to 1.14 (South Carolina). In Florida, nest success varied by species of nest tree: 78 percent for cypress, 60 percent for slash pine and 17 percent for Australian pine. In addition, nests in more flexible trees failed more often due to wind than nests in more rigid trees (Meyer and Collopy 1995).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Elanoides forficatus
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
-- end --
Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Elanoides forficatus
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
Elanoides forficatus has not been classified as a threatened species. Before 1980, these birds were found as far as the northern Midwest, but due to logging, draining of swamps, and shooting, populations dwindled and are now found only in the southern U.S., mainly in Florida and tropical habitats during the winter. They are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.
US Migratory Bird Act: protected
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N3B - Vulnerable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Reasons: Large range makes this species apparently secure on a global basis; trends in most of the range are poorly known; population appears to be increasing at the northern end of the range in the southeastern United States.
Other Considerations: Meyer and Collopy (1990) found high (77%) nest site fidelity (regardless of prior nesting success) and high communal roost site fidelity; reasons for birds not using apparently suitable looking habitat and/or increasing range are not known. Federal status in U.S.: Listed as a Category 2 in 1985, downgraded to 3C in 1989, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abolished all but C category (formerly C1) in 1996. Meyer and Collopy (1990) regard previous downgrading as unjustified. South Carolina lists species as Endangered (Meyer 1995).
Global Short Term Trend: Unknown
Comments: Recent global trend is unknown.
Data from the 1990s did not allow an accurate assessment of recent population trends for the U.S. population, although it was clear the species was not experiencing the marked population increases exhibited by other kites (Meyer and Collopy 1996). Analyses of Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data were inconclusive. "A cautious assumption that population is stable, with local increases... and decreases" (Meyer 1995). More recently, based on BBS and Christmas Bird Count data, Butcher and Niven (2007) concluded that there is evidence of an increase in the U.S. population. Autumn migration counts around the Gulf of Mexico during 1995-2005 also documented increasing numbers of swallow-tailed kites (Smith et al. 2008) that could reflect a population increase or a shift in migration geography (Farmer et al. 2008).
Global Long Term Trend: Unknown
Comments: Long-term global trend is unknown.
Populations declined significantly in the U.S. between 1880 and 1940 (Cely 1979). The U.S. breeding range once included an estimated 21 states, but is now restricted to portions of seven southeastern states (Meyer 1995). During the 1960s-1980s, many local nesting concentrations in Florida disappeared (Meyer and Collopy 1990).
Degree of Threat: Medium
Comments: Past decline of the U.S. population is attributed to prairie cultivation, wetland drainage, logging of forests, egg collecting, and indiscriminate shooting (Cely 1979, Meyer 1990, Meyer 1995).
Habitat alteration and loss continue at an accelerated pace in the United States. In Florida, most nesting and roosting habitat occurs on private land which is being converted to large-scale agriculture operations. Short-rotation, even-aged pine plantations reduce the number of tall, emergent trees required for nesting. Poor fire management can reduce habitat heterogeneity or reduce the number of nesting or roosting trees (Meyer and Collopy 1995). Threats along migration routes and on the winter range are unknown (Meyer and Collopy 1996).
Low (non-lethal) concentrations of mercury were found in tissues of two nestlings and three adults collected in Florida (Lee and Clark 1993, Meyer 1995). The significance of this as a threat is unknown.
Restoration Potential: Strong fidelity to nest and roost sites inhibits colonization of formerly occupied habitat (Meyer and Collopy 1996). Limited attempts to reintroduce this species to presently unoccupied former range have failed (Meyer 1990). Given the species' biology (e.g., strongly social, delayed breeding, mobile), reintroduction could be difficult, at best (Meyer 1995).
Preserve Selection and Design Considerations: Suitable nesting habitat requires appropriate nest and roost sites within a landscape that provides sufficient prey for successful reproduction. Habitat mosaics with various plant communities such as forests, prairies, and wetlands of various sizes, are essential. Minimum area requirements are difficult to define; where breeding habitat quality is good and prey is abundant and concentrated, 30 square kilometers may be sufficient, but where habitat quality is less suitable and prey is more diffuse, 100-300 square kilometers may be necessary (Meyer and Collopy 1995).
Management Requirements: Tall trees that emerge from the surrounding canopy are essential for nesting. Such trees should be managed for in landscapes dominated by short-rotation, even-aged pine plantations. Nests built in Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia), an exotic species, fail at a significantly higher rate than those in native pine (Pinus spp.) or cypress (Taxodium spp.). Where kites nest in large numbers, it may be prudent to reduce the availability of Australian pine as nest sites (Meyer 1990).
Management Programs: Collaborative efforts with Brazilian conservationists are ongoing to protect native habitats at the critical wintering and breeding sites, which are all privately owned agricultural lands (K. Meyer, pers. comm.).
Monitoring Programs: This species is monitored on North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes (Sauer et al. 1997) and irregularly by state wildlife agencies (Millsap and Runde 1988). In Florida, systematic state-wide roost observations would form a good basis for long-term monitoring (K. Meyer, pers. comm.).
Management Research Needs: An accurate means of assessing population changes needs to be developed. Also, nesting and foraging habitat requirements need to be defined, winter habitat requirements need to be determined, prey densities essential for reproductive success need to be examined, and a study of marked individuals is needed to determine age at first breeding, sex ratio, survival, and social behavior (Meyer 1990, Meyer and Collopy 1995).
Biological Research Needs: Better information is needed on demography, migration routes winter biology, and habitat needs. The validity of subspecies designation needs to be examined since this may influence listing status (Meyer 1995).
Global Protection: Several to many (4-40) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Comments: Meyer and Collopy (1990) listed seven protected sites among the 16 they considered critically important for nesting and roosting of E. f. forficatus in Florida; virtually nothing is known about protection status of E. f. yetapa.
Needs: This species would benefit from acquisition of key breeding, foraging, and large roost sites.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no known adverse effects of E. forficatus on humans.
Swallow-tailed kites contribute to control of insect populations in habitats they occupy. They are also lovely birds that attract ecotourism.
Positive Impacts: ecotourism ; controls pest population
Stewardship Overview: Population appears to have stabilized since 1940, although small changes in numbers occur locally (increasing or decreasing). This species is not experiencing the increase seen in other species of kites. An accurate method of assessing population trends needs to be developed. The species is threatened by extensive loss and alteration of breeding habitat, principally due to wetland drainage, agriculture, and short-rotation tree farming. Demographic studies and determination of threats on migration routes and winter range are urgently needed. Preservation of large tracts of heterogeneous habitat is necessary to ensure population recovery. In the United States, the most pressing need is to identify and protect privately owned nesting and roosting sites to ensure, at a minimum, persistence of the present small population.
- For the African species, see African swallow-tailed kite
The swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) is an elanid kite which breeds from the southeastern United States to eastern Peru and northern Argentina. Most North and Central American breeders winter in South America where the species is resident year round. It was formerly named Falco forficatus.
The species is 50 to 68 cm (20 to 27 in) in length, with a wingspan of approximately 1.12–1.36 m (3.7–4.5 ft). Male and female individuals appear similar. The body weight is 310–600 g (11–21 oz). The body is a contrasting deep black and white. The flight feathers, tail, feet, bill are all black. Another characteristic is the elongated, forked tail at 27.5–37 centimetres (10.8–14.6 in), hence the name swallow-tailed. The wings are also relatively elongated, as the wing chord measures 39–45 cm (15–18 in). The tarsus is fairly short for the size of the bird at 3.3 cm (1.3 in).
Young swallow-tailed kites are duller in color than the adults, and the tail is not as deeply forked.
Habitat and behavior
Sometimes a high-pitched chirp is emitted, though the birds mostly remain silent.
The swallow-tailed kite feeds on small reptiles, such as snakes and lizards. It may also feed on small amphibians such as frogs; large insects, such as grasshoppers, crickets; small birds and eggs; and small mammals. It has been observed to regularly consume fruit in Central America. It drinks by skimming the surface and collecting water in its beak.
Conservation in the United States
Swallow-tailed kites are not listed as endangered or threatened by the federal government in the United States. They are listed as endangered by the state of South Carolina and as threatened by the state of Texas. They are listed as "rare" by the state of Georgia. Destruction of habitats is chiefly responsible for the decline in numbers. A key conservation area is the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
- Stiles and Skutch, A guide to the birds of Costa Rica ISBN 0-8014-9600-4
- BirdLife International (2012). "Elanoides forficatus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Raptors of the World by Ferguson-Lees, Christie, Franklin, Mead & Burton. Houghton Mifflin (2001), ISBN 0-618-12762-3
- Buskirk, William; Margaret Lechner (October 1978). "Frugivory by Swallow-Tailed Kites in Costa Rica". The Auk 95: 767–768.
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- American Swallow-tailed Kite videos, photos, and sounds at the Internet Bird Collection
- 5 pictures of Swallow-tailed Kites at amazilia.net
- Stamps (for Grenadines of Guyana, Guyana, Nicaragua) with Range Map at bird-stamps.org
- Swallow-tailed Kite photo gallery at VIREO (Drexel University)
- Photo of soaring Swallow-tailed Kite at cayaya-birding.com
- Swallow-tailed Kite species account at NeotropicalBirds (Cornell University)
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Morphological differences between E. f. forficatus and E. f. yetapa are slight and subspecific status of E. f. yetapa has been questioned (Robertson 1988). Formerly named "American Swallow-tailed Kite" (see AOU 1995).