The swallow tailed kite is a pernine, migratory raptor. It is the only species belonging to genus Elanoides. This species is thought to be one of the most elegant fliers among all bird species found in the United States. The genus name comes from Ancient Greek, in which ’elanos’ mean ‘kite’, and ‘-oides’ mean ‘resembling’.
Species: E. forficatus
The scientific name for Swallow tailed kite is Elanoides forficatus.
Adult Elanoides forficatus tend to be 50 to 70 centimetres in length. Their wingspan can be around 1.12 to 1.36 meters.
Individuals can weigh around 300 to 600 grams. Male and female have a similar appearance. The color of their body plumage is contrasting white and black; while the bill, feet, tail and flight feathers are black. These species get its common name because of its forked, elongated tail which is 27 to 37 centimetres in length. They also have broadened wing chords measuring about 35 to 45 centimetres. Their tarsus is relatively short – standing at 3.3 centimetres on average. The color of the young ones tends to be duller compared to adult specimens.
They prefer wooded swamps and riversides with abundant prey.
They need tall trees to build a nest. In North America, they are mostly found in pine forests located near prairie or marshes. And, in tropical areas, they are seen in the mountain cloud forest and lowland rain forest. Its nestling location can be as high as 100 feet from the ground.
They have two subspecies with the North American population being a little larger compared to its Central and South American population.
In North America, this species breed from South Carolina to Florida in the east, and to Texas, and Louisiana in the west. Most of its population is found in Florida and in the deep south. Their migration takes place during winter when they settle in the northern part of South America for some time. The South American native population is mostly found in northern Argentina, and eastern Peru, where they stay year round. The scattered population are found in West Indies, and Mexico.
Approximately three percent of its total population breed in North America. They migrate thousands of miles in order to find a suitable habitat along coastal wetlands. Researchers have found that some individuals cover more than 10000 miles during migration. They have a highly manoeuvrable flight and keen eyesight. They can catch insects while in flight. They take much of their food by descending low over lower growths or trees and preying upon creatures without pausing.
Breeding takes place from March to May. They often form monogamous pairs. Nesting sites are generally in high trees in open forestland, primarily in pine, cypress or connonwood.
They take around four days to make a breeding nest using small sticks as a platform, lined with Spanish moss and soft lichens. Sometimes, pairs return to the same location where they bred the previous season. Mating rituals involve aerial chases by both male and female. Sometimes, the male can be seen feeding the female. Females lay 2 – 4 eggs that are creamy white in color, marked with brown patches. Both sexes take part in incubation that lasts for 28 to 30 days. In the first week, following hatching, young ones are brooded by female; while males bring food to the nest. After two to three weeks, females also go for a hunt in order to feed the young ones. The young ones can move after five weeks, and their first flight takes place in 5 to 6 weeks.
These species feed on lizards, small snakes, frogs, grasshoppers, crickets, wasps, beetles, small nestling birds, and bird eggs. At times, they can also be seen feeding on small mammals, such as bats.In Central America, the sighting of this species eating small fruits is quite common.
The lifespan of this species is not known (However, the lifespan of one White-tailed kite, i.e. Elanus leucurus, was noted to be around 6 years).
This species mostly stay silent. At times, they produce a high-pitched chirp type call.
Little is known about its predators. It is believed that young ones are preyed upon by other birds of prey.
The state of South Carolina has listed Swallow tailed kite in ‘endangered’ category; while the state of Texas has named it ‘threatened’, and state of Georgia calls it ‘rare.’
Alterations in wetland hydrology and habitat degradation have shrinked its native range and have triggered a massive decline in population. Habitat degradation and deforestation in its migration routes have also caused adverse effects in breeding.
Florida’s Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is an important conservation area. The population have increased as of 2016. Also, in places like Georgia, habitat restoration and its management has proved to be successful.
The former binomial scientific name of this raptor was ‘Falco forficatus’ given by Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus in Systema Naturae’s tenth edition, published in 1758.
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