Fly Like a Kite
Swallow-Tailed Kites of Florida
In this debut blog of Be Wild Florida’s Creature Feature, I am spotlighting one of the most beautiful and aerodynamic birds I’ve ever seen…the Swallow-tailed Kite.
As I write this blog, I pause to gaze out at the peaceful meadow behind my home and receive instant inspiration from nature! I can hear a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites calling to one another and effortlessly drifting on the air currents on this stormy day.
I didn’t even know this gorgeous raptor species existed until I moved to Florida in 2018. My first time seeing one of these graceful falcons in flight was in the nature preserve behind my home here in Southwest Florida. I was captivated by its bold black and white plumage, delicate pointed wings, and deeply forked tail; but mostly by its incredible aerial acrobatics! I had to find out what this gorgeous bird was, and learn more about its behavior. I observed it rolling and tumbling with ease through the sky; its tail turning sharply like a rudder as it snatched things out of mid-air. What was it eating? As I stood watching it soar in the meadow, it suddenly changed direction and came speeding into my backyard Sabal palm feet first, and made a huge crash into a large palm frond as it grabbed a resting dragonfly with a swipe of its talons. Then it proceeded to eat the dragonfly by bringing its talon up to its beak, and ate it while it was flying! I was absolutely amazed and had never seen a bird do this before. When I identified this elegant bird and its habits and migration, I was even more impressed.
This gorgeous raptor is a member of the family Falconidae. It’s a Florida native that makes an incredible migration over the ocean to South America every year in the Fall. They used to be found as far north as Minnesota, but in the early 1900’s, their population took a dive due to human encroachment on their habitats. You can mainly find them in Florida today, although they are found in six other Southern states.
From early February through late August, you can see these aerial acrobats soaring on air currents, diving, tumbling and free-wheeling across Florida skies near cypress domes, swamps, rivers, and open savannas. Swallow-tailed kites make a high-pitched call like a squeaky toy as they soar overhead, so you can hear them before you spot them. Their mission while in Florida is to feed and breed. When they are interested in pair-bonding with a mate, they do exciting aerial courtship displays where they dive bomb and chase one another like Top Gun fighter jet pilots, while giving their shrill “kli-kli-kli” call.
It’s rare to see them flap their wings or perch during the day. They wake up at dawn and stretch out their wings to dry from the dew. Then they wait for the thermals and fly up and soar and hunt all day until sunset, when they roost. They are highly social and will fly and hunt together in small flocks of three to six birds typically. The largest flock I have ever seen was in the preserve behind my home. It was a beautiful sight to watch sixteen kites soaring together high up on the thermals in a swirling circle. They will often nest together in close proximity and prefer nesting at the top of very tall Cypress trees and pines. The pair will build their nests together with sticks and Spanish moss interwoven in and line it with soft lichen and moss. They even add in entire wasp nests to their nest after consuming all the larvae and wasps. Mama kite incubates the eggs and Daddy kite brings her insect take-out on the nest.
They are expert and accurate insect-hunters as they swoop through the air capturing dragonflies, cicadas, grasshoppers, and wasps. They also fly low over trees and snatch lizards, frogs, snakes, and baby birds from nests during their hunting fly-bys.
I recently observed an interesting interaction between a Swallow-tailed Kite and a pair of red-shouldered hawks on a favorite hiking trail near my home. A small flock of kites was hunting in a slash pine grove and the resident hawks had a nest at the top of a pine. As the kites flew near the tree, one of the hawks dive-bombed the kite, shrieking, and hit it with their wings; making an audible flap and thud as they collided. The hawks know that swallow-tailed kites are baby snatchers! Kites will swoop by the nest and grab nestlings with their talons. Often the tables are turned on the Swallow-tailed kites and they experience the same predatory behavior from their main predator, the great horned owl. The kites are vulnerable at night in their lofty nests at the top of the trees. Sometimes great horned owls will kill the female sitting on the nest, then return to kill and eat the chicks.
If they can successfully raise their chicks to fledge and leave the nest, they are ready to make the arduous journey back to South America until the following winter. They gather in huge flocks by the hundreds before their migration back to South America in the Fall. They prefer gathering in remote locations near the water where the trees become dotted with kites, giving researchers an opportunity to do an aerial survey and count them.
During their migration, they must stop on the way to South America at the Yucatán peninsula to rest. Not a bad place for a layover! They can fly for four days straight over open water, which I find absolutely incredible. Then they fly all the way across the Caribbean to Central and Southern Brazil, where the habitat is very similar to Florida.
They have been a rather mysterious bird for many years, without much known about their behavior and migratory patterns. Researchers wanted to know where they were going and how far. In the last few years, more information has been learned about their habits through fitting them with GPS monitors. Scientists learned just what powerful fliers the Swallow-tailed kites are as their data confirmed they were flying across the ocean over 5,000 miles to Brazil each year!
Even after watching these stunning birds for the last three years, I never lose my sense of awe when I see them swooping and tumbling through the skies with beauty and grace. We are fortunate that currently their population in Florida is stable and they are making a slight increase in numbers, even with the constant threat of habitat destruction here in Florida. They are attempting to adapt to the loss of their favorite habitats by using man-made pine nurseries throughout the state. Researchers, with the cooperation of nursery owners, are currently studying how kites are using these pine nurseries to successfully raise their young.
I feel so privileged to see such a fascinating and elegant falcon flying in the skies above my home each winter and spring. If we continue to work at preserving the pine and cypress forests that they need to survive, we can look forward to seeing them soaring gracefully above us for years to come.