White-tailed Kite

Scientific Name:
Elanus leucurus
Population Status:
Least Concern
Body Length:
15-17 in (38-43 cm)
Wingspan:
3 ft (1 m)
Weight:
10 oz (283 g)

Did you know?

  • Many of the North American kites have an eye color that is some shade of red.
  • If there is high prey abundance, White-tailed Kites may lay two egg clutches in one breeding season.
  • The thin, pointy wings of the White-tailed Kite cause it to look falcon-like in flight.

How The Peregrine Fund is helping

The Peregrine Fund is not working directly with White-tailed Kites, but our conservation efforts through habitat protection, education, and community outreach extend to all raptor species, including this beautiful kite. 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.

Where they live

White-tailed Kites are found from the West Coast and Gulf Coast of the United States south to Mexico, Central America, and eastern South America. Unlike many species facing ever-shrinking ranges, the White-tailed Kite's range has expanded greatly since the 1960s. There have been several sightings of this species outside of its typical area of distribution, particularly in the northern United States and British Colombia, Canada.

The White-tailed Kite avoids high elevations and is found most often at low- or middle-elevation savannas, pastures, grassland, marshes, and even agricultural areas with scattered trees. This lovely raptor can also be seen quite frequently along roadways.

What they do

As its name implies, the White-tailed Kite has a bright white tail. In fact, it is pure white over much of its body, including its belly and head. It has black shoulders and wing-tips, grayish wings and back and penetratingly bright red eyes. Its feet and cere are bright yellow, and its beak is a slaty grey.

The White-tailed Kite is slightly crepuscular, which means it is active during twilight hours. It is generally a solitary species and can be seen perched on tops of trees or powerlines. However, during winter these birds often roost together in large groups.

Similar to the American Kestrel, the White-tailed Kite is an excellent hoverer. With the help of a good headwind, these kites flap their wings vigorously and maneuver their tails to stay in one spot, like a helicopter in mid-air, while searching the ground for prey.

This species is presumed to be a resident throughout its range and non-migratory. However, it is considered to be irruptive. This means that, similar to the Snowy Owl, it may travel far outside of its range in response to large increases or decreases in prey populations.

Why they need our help

Shooting and egg collecting brought White-tailed Kites close to extinction in California in the 1940s but they have since rebounded in some parts of the state. In fact, the range of this species has expanded dramatically in North America and Central America within the last 50-60 years. This is probably because there is more open space, particularly in tropical areas as forests are replaced by cropland. There is also less persecution by people and perhaps an increase in prey. Despite this, populations in some areas have declined and biologists don't understand why.

The White-tailed Kite is now fairly common to common in most areas, and its range is still expanding in many others.

What they eat

The White-tailed Kite prefers to eat small mammals such as mice and voles, but will occasionally hunt reptiles, such as geckos, amphibians, and flying insects like swarming ants. It occasionally feeds on birds.

This kite uses several hunting strategies. It may fly slow and low, often 25-65 feet off the ground, keeping an eye out for something to eat. It also searches for prey by soaring, flapping, or hovering flight. When a tasty morsel is spotted, it drops down with its wings up and feet dangling to seize prey.

Insects are often consumed on the wing. This means these birds of prey don't return to a perch to feed but rather transfer the prey to their beaks while in flight. With larger prey such as rodents or lizards, they fly to a perch to pluck and eat.

Scientists have discovered that in some areas of their range, White-tailed Kites and Barn Owls share much of the same prey, even though kites are diurnal (active during the day) and Barn Owls are nocturnal (active at night).

Nest, eggs and young

White-tailed Kites build their nests in the fork of a tree or bush. The nest is cup-shaped and made of small- to medium-sized sticks. The nest is often lined with softer, finer material such as grass, which creates a safe, comfortable area for the eggs and nestlings.

When the time is right, the female lays 3-5 eggs. The eggs vary quite a bit in color and may be white and heavily mottled with brown spots, light brown and spotted, or a light orange to rufous color with darker markings. The eggs must be incubated for about 30 days.

During this time, the male is responsible for bringing food to the female. After the young hatch, they spend the next 5-6 weeks in the nest. The male's job now becomes much harder as he not only needs to bring enough food for the female, but also for his young. When the chicks are very young, the female tears off small pieces of meat and delicately feed her young with her bill. Later, as the chicks grow, they are able to tear off and eat the meat on their own.

The young fledge, or fly for the first time, around 35 days after hatching. They remain dependent on their parents for another month before they are able to hunt on their own.

White-tailed Kite and The World Center for Birds of Prey

The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about birds of prey. The visitor center offers interactive displays, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets to quizzes to costumes and a touch table, all designed 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 White-tailed Kites or any other bird of prey.

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What makes a raptor a raptor?

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