The Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) is instantly recognizable with its pied plumage, long, narrow wings, and strongly forked tail. These birds of prey are fascinating to watch as they wheel and glide through the skies in search of flying insects.
Most American birdwatchers will need to travel a long way to see the Swallow-tailed Kite for themselves, but where do they live, and where can you find them?
Swallow-tailed Kites are migratory in North America. They visit the Southeast, and Florida in particular, in the spring and summer each year. Look out for these birds in the skies above, as they rarely perch during the day. They can be seen as far south as southern Brazil throughout the year.
These birds were once widespread visitors to the eastern half of the United States. Unfortunately, their numbers declined drastically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The cause of their decline was probably a combination of habitat destruction and shooting, and unfortunately, the species has not shown signs of recovery.
Would you like to learn more about the Swallow-tailed Kites’ distribution? Read along to find out where you might spot these graceful raptors this summer.
Florida is one of the best places to see Swallow-tailed kites, in the spring and summer
Swallow-tailed Kites are native to North and South America. These graceful raptors occur in South America throughout the year, but some visit the southeast and south of the USA each year to breed.
There are two recognized subspecies of Swallow-tailed Kites. Elanoides forficatus forficatus is the only subspecies that visits the United States. These birds breed in southeastern states like Florida and overwinter in South America. The closely related E. f. yetapa breeds south of southern Mexico.
Continue reading to learn where these graceful birds live in the United States.
Swallow-tailed Kites are a Southeastern special in the United States. The species used to have a much larger breeding range in North America, but today they are rare north of South Carolina.
Historical records show that Swallow-tailed Kites visited and bred across much of the American Midwest each year. They occurred along nearly the entire length of the Mississippi River, from the Gulf Coast to Minnesota, and the lower reaches of major tributaries like the Arkansas, Missouri, and Ohio rivers.
Today, bird watchers are most likely to spot these birds in the following US states:
Although rare, Swallow-tailed Kites occasionally turn up further north in North Carolina and sometimes even Eastern Canada.
Swallow-tailed Kite perched in a tree, Naples, Florida
Swallow-tailed Kites prefer humid, low-altitude habitats in the United States. They require at least some large trees in their habitat for roosting and nesting. They avoid dry areas, preferring moist habitats like swamps, marshes, rivers, lakes, and mangroves.
South of the United States, Swallow-tailed Kites occupy a variety of forest types, from riverine forests in drier areas to cloud forests above 5000 feet (1500m) in Mexico.
Swallow-tailed Kites are uncommon and localized across most of their North American range. They were formerly more common and widespread in the US, with historical breeding records as far north as Minnesota. Sadly, the species declined in the early 1900s.
Just a few thousand Swallow-tailed Kites visit the USA each year, and most are confined to Florida. Apart from the two or three thousand individuals that migrate to the Sunshine State, these striking birds are difficult to find.
Swallow-tailed kite in its natural habitat, flying low and hunting
Florida is the best state for watching Swallow-tailed Kites. Birdwatchers can spot these amazing birds in many protected areas, including the Everglades National Park, the Myakka River State Park, and the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Further north, birdwatchers can also see these birds in South Carolina, although they are less common there. Try the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina for a chance to see these birds in the summer.
Swallow-tailed Kites are diurnal birds and begin their day relatively late. They first leave their roosts an hour or two after the sun rises in the morning.
By that time, the sun begins to heat the ground and causes rising air. These master fliers use these air currents to stay in flight all day while rarely flapping their long wings. They return to their roosts around sunset.
Swallow-tailed kite in flight, hunting for prey, Everglades, Florida
The Swallow-tailed Kites that visit North America are long-distance migrants that fly as far south as Brazil. None of these breeding visitors spend the winter in the US.
Swallow-tailed Kites spend hours at a time on the wing, and they occupy large home ranges that span several thousand acres.
Swallow-tailed Kites are present throughout the year across most of their distribution in South America, Central America, and the Islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
All Swallow-tail Kites leave the USA in the summer to return to South America. Most cross the Straits of Florida to Cuba and then fly to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. However, others take a less direct route, following the east coast of Mexico.
From there, they spread out into South America, migrating as far as southern Brazil. The species is widespread in South America, occupying at least a dozen countries, from Argentina in the South to the Caribbean in the north.
Swallow-tailed Kites avoid cold weather by migrating south for the winter. By moving closer to the equator, these birds can enjoy tropical weather conditions and rich insect and reptile supplies throughout the year.
Swallow-tailed kites flock in the pine trees of Naples, Florida as they prepare to migrate south
Swallow-tailed Kites live in South, Central, and North America in the summer. The number of birds that visit the USA each summer probably totals less than 5000, which is a small percentage of their global population.
About two-thirds of these visiting birds spend the summer in Florida, with the second highest number to the north in South Carolina.
Swallow-tailed Kites are highly social, roosting and hunting in groups, often within just feet of each other. Swallow-tailed Kites are occasionally seen foraging in flocks of a hundred or more, and they will often roost in flocks of over a thousand birds before migration.
Such large groups are a special sight because they represent a large percentage of the population that visits the United States. However, these birds are territorial when nesting and will defend an area up to a hundred yards or so around their nest.
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