Though The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with Snail Kites, our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve raptors on a global scale. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.
In the United States, Snail Kites are found only in Florida – from the central lakes, to Lake Okeechobee, to the Everglades – where it is considered locally endangered. From there, its range extends south to a few Caribbean Islands, including Cuba, into Central America, and farther south to South America east of the Andes Mountains.
Associated with freshwater marshes and wetlands, this unique raptor flies low over lakes, ponds, sloughs, rice fields, flooded fields, and even alongside roadside ditches. When not flying in search of its favorite food, Snail Kites may be seen perched on low posts, bushes, or even on the ground.
The male and female Snail Kite are quite different in plumage coloration. The males are a beautiful slate gray color with a white rump patch, similar to the rump patch seen on Northern Harriers. Females are dark brown above and streaked brown below, and they also have a white rump patch as well as white beneath their throats. Both the male and female have red eyes.
The Snail Kite is quite gregarious and can spend time in large flocks, whether it is traveling to a roost site at dusk or foraging for food in loose groups. Scientists aren't sure whether this species is naturally this social or in the same area simply because that is where the food is.
This species is particularly adept at locating new or temporarily available patches of wet habitat. In Panama, these birds even changed their behavior when a new food source was found. Historically, the Snail Kite didn't nest in Panama, but rather migrated through the area at certain times of the year. Now kites are nesting and living year-round in Panama due to contruction of the Panama Canal, creation of the associated Gatun Lake, and the introduction of Apple Snails, the Snail Kite's main prey.
In the Florida Everglades, the Snail Kite is considered endangered because changing water levels are having a negative impact on the Apple Snails that these raptors rely on for food. Outside of Florida, however, scientists believe that the Snail Kite population is fairly stable and may even be increasing in Central America. While the Snail Kite is still considered one of the most abundant raptor species in suitable wetland habitat in parts of South America, biologists have seen population declines in other areas, including Ecuador and Brazil.
The main threat this species faces is the draining and altering of their marsh and wetland habitats. As you can imagine, a bird that is so dependent on just one prey item for food can be very vulnerable to changes in habitat. If this prey animal disappears, the Snail Kite is left with little to eat.
True to its name, the Snail Kite feeds almost exclusively on freshwater snails. While all raptors have hooked beaks, the Snail Kite takes the prize for a specialized bill. Its deeply curved, pointed beak acts like a hook that is used to pull the yummy snails out of their shells. Once the meat is extracted, the Snail Kites discard the undamaged shells.
When in search of prey, this bird searches from a perch or flies low over marshlands, descending adeptly to pluck snails from just under the water or from vegetation with their feet. They then return to a favorite perch to feed.
This raptor has also been documented feeding on a few other prey items, including crabs, crayfish, rodents and even a turtle. However, its dependence on snails for food restricts the bird’s range to marshy areas that contain these specific types of snails.
Keeping with its gregarious behavior, the Snail Kite also nests in colonies, or groups, in low trees and bushes usually over water. They typically place their nests on a thin branch, which can appear quite flimsy to the human eye, but appears to work for this species.
The female lays 1-4 eggs, which are off-white and mottled with brown. Both the male and female take turns incubating the eggs for about 26-28 days. After hatching, it takes the young another 6-7 weeks before they are ready to fledge, or fly for the first time.
In the middle of nesting season, the female Snail Kite might desert the male, leaving him to finish raising the nestlings while she searches for a new mate to raise a second clutch of eggs!
Snail Kites are able to breed in less than one year.
The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about birds of prey. The visitor center has interactive displays, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets to quizzes to costumes and a touch table for the curious mind. We also have several different birds of prey on display year-around. Knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about Snail Kites or any other birds of prey.