SWALLOW-TAILED KITE   Elanoides forficatusElanoides forficatus

These elegantly plumaged, graceful kites, once summer residents of much of the eastern half of Texas, are sadly, now restricted to a small, at least by Texas standards, area in the southeast corner of the state as the map below shows. The reasons for the dramatic range loss in the United States are not well understood, but may involve habitat change (Meyer 1995).

Swallow-tailed Kites are fascinating to observe as they hover over treetops or open areas, with wings motionless, but tails twisting to maintain their position in the wind. From here they prey on flying insects or snatch birds and reptiles from tree canopies or emergent vegetation (Meyer 1995).

DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992 field work seasons of the TBBA project, atlasers found 6 confirmed, 4 probable and 29 possible breeding sites, almost all in southeast Texas near the coast and the lower Sabine River in the  Pineywoods and Coastal Prairies regions (see the region map in Lockwood and Freeman [2004]).

Swallow-tailed Kites also breed along the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains from South Carolina to Louisiana (Sauer et al. 2008). Breeding also occurs from South Mexico to Argentina with the species wintering in South America (Howell and Webb 1995, Meyer 1995, Am. Ornithol. Union 1998).

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Most Swallow-tailed Kites arrive in Texas from mid-March to early May when they are rare to uncommon. Breeding occurs from late February to  early July, based on egg collection dates extending from March 10 to June 7. Fall movemen of these kites takes place between late August and mid-October (Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).

BREEDING HABIAT. Swallow-tailed Kites breed in Texas  from sea level to 230 m (750 ft) in bottomland forests with nearby open areas, freshwater marshes skirting large lakes and pine glades adjoining cypress swamps (Oberholser 1974).

The nests are placed near the top of tall trees and constructed of sticks and twigs, interspersed with Spanish moss and leaves. A slight depression holds the 2 white eggs, boldly blotched or spotted with shades of brown. Incubation, mostly by the female, lasts about 28 days. The female does most of the brooding of thr nestlings. Brooding is almost constant during the first week. The male provides most of the food, especially during the first half of the nestling period. The young are fed a variable diet, including vertebrates and invertebrates, especially insects, frogs, nestling birds, lizards, and snakes. The young take their first flights 5-6 weeks after hatching, but remain dependent on their parents for food for another 2-3 months as they learn to fly and forage for themselves (Harrison 1979, Meyer 1995).

STATUS. Oberholser (1974) considered Swallow-tailed Kite to be formerly very common to uncommon with a historic range on the Coastal Prairies. Breeding  extended west to the Balcones Escarpment and north to Navarro County. Lockwood and Freeman (2004) now consider this kite to be a rare to locally uncommon summer resident with a reduced breeding range as shown on the TBBA map.

Historically these kites bred in the swampy bottom lands of the Mississippi River drainage as far north as Minnesota as well as  east on the Ohio River. Surprisingly as of 1995 only South Carolina listed this species as Endangered (Meyer 1995). This drastic range contraction illustrates the tenuous situation of the present population in Texas.

Text by Robert C. Tweit (2009)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature cited.

American Ornithologists’ Union. 1998. Checklist of North American birds, 7th ed. Am, Ornithol. Union, Washington, DC.

Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Howell, S. N. G. and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford University Press, New York.

Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Meyer, K. D. 1995. Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Ithaca, NY. Retrieved from: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/138Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2008. The North American breeding bird survey, results and analysis 1966-2007. Version 5.15.2008. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel MD.  http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs

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