Did You Know?
- The Letter-winged Kite was named for the markings under its wings which reminded the person who named it of - you guessed it - letters! The markings on the underwings resemble the letter "M" or "W" when the bird is in flight.
- The Letter-winged Kite is the only bird in its family that is nocturnal.
- During times when rodent populations are extremely high, the Letter-winged Kite can raise several brood of young in succession.
How The Peregrine Fund is Helping
Though The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with Letter-winged 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. Additionally, our support of the Global Raptor Information Network gives raptor researchers tools to more efficiently conduct their own studies while contributing to a global program. It also provides citizen scientists a way to participate in raptor science and conservation.
Where They Live
The Letter-winged Kite is endemic to Australia. This means it is found only there and no where else in the world.
This kite is generally found across the drier interior of Australia. It doesn't live in densely forested areas, but rather prefers arid (which means dry) and semi arid habitats. It also inhabits shrub-land and grasslands with little vegetation, as well as wooded watercourses and billabongs, which are isolated pools that form often when a river floods and become separated from the water source as the river lowers or becomes more dry.
Whether or not individual Letter-winged Kites are found in a given area, or whether or not they are abundant there, is very dependent on how much food is available. If there is a lot of food, you will find a lot of kites. If not, they might be completely absent from an area that otherwise seems to be perfectly suited to them.
What They Do
The Letter-winged Kite is a stunning bird of prey, and similar in coloration to the White-tailed Kite of North and South America, with some notable differences of course. The kite is light gray overall. It has a bright white head and penetrating red eyes which are surrounded by a black eye patch. Its underparts are white. Its tail is also white, save for the middle feathers which are a light gray. When perched, it has a very visible black wing patch.
Surprisingly, the Letter-winged Kite is known to do most of its hunting at night. During the day, it will roost (or rest) in small groups that hang out together in trees, such as the Eucalyptus Coolabah, or other perches.
The Letter-winged Kite, like most birds, has a wide repertoire of calls which all have different meanings. When in groups they can be quite vocal. They cack, chirp, chatter, whistle and rasp to communicate with their mates, to signal their arrival at their nest, or as an alarm call.
Why They Need our Help
The Letter-winged Kite is one of Australia's rarest birds of prey. It is categorized as Near Threatened by the IUCN meaning the species could be threatened with extinction in the not-too-distant future.
One of the threats facing this species includes competition with introduced predators, such as foxes and feral cats. Cats also might attack the kites' nests, preying on their young.
What They Eat
The Letter-winged Kite, like the Barn Owl, is a voracious hunter of rodents. In the case of the kite, it has a particular favorite among all the rodents - namely the Long-haired Rat (Rattus villosissimus). However, this rat species isn't always around in large numbers. It, like many rodents, undergoes periodic population explosions following heavy rainfall so at times there are a lot of these critters to eat. Other times, they are a bit more scarce. But don't worry, the Letter-winged Kite will also feed on small mammals, reptiles, and even insects.
Scientists have observed this species sometimes hunting in groups.
It hunts by flying over open areas. When it spots something, it will hover in the sky, flapping its wings quickly while staying in the same spot, then drop to capture its quarry on the ground.
Nests, Eggs and Young
While the Letter-winged Kite can be a bit social when it hunts - forming small groups to catch quarry, it is extremely social when it comes to breeding. In fact, their breeding colonies can contain up to 100 individuals! However, that doesn't mean that sometimes these kites won't nest far away from each other.
These kites generally nest in a platform of twigs, that they line with green leaves or cattle dung, which is a fancy word for poop. They sometimes use old nests of other species, like ravens. The female will lay between 3-6 eggs, which need to be incubated for about 31 days.
Once the young hatch, they will remain in the nest for 30-35 days before flying for the first time.
In times of heavy rainfall, when rodent population numbers can be quite large, the Letter-winged Kite will often nest and raise multiple broods one after the other, increasing this species; population greatly. Once conditions become dry again and rodent numbers decline, it can become difficult for all of these kites to find prey. They must disperse to other areas in search of food.
The Letter-winged 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 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-round. Knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about Letter-winged Kites or any other birds of prey.
Debus, S., Kirwan, G.M., Christie, D.A. & Marks, J.S. (2020). Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from https://www.hbw.com/node/52969 on 18 March 2020).
Global Raptor Information Network. 2020. Species account: Letter-winged Kite Elanus scriptus. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 18 Mar. 2020