Why the Interest in this Species
Both the range and numbers in the U.S. of the Swallow-tailed Kite have been greatly reduced. A partnership from 1998 to 1999 among Texas Partners in Flight, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Temple-Inland Forest, and the U.S. Forest Service has identified this species as needing conservation attention. Outdoor enthusiasts such as birders, hikers, hunters, anglers and the general public helped in determining the distribution and concentrations of these kites in Texas by submitting a survey form and sent it to Texas Partners in Flight, based at Texas Parks and Wildlife.
What Do These Birds Look Like and Where Are They Found?
There are three species of kites regularly found in Texas (Swallow-tailed, Mississippi, and White-tailed kites), plus a fourth one (Hook-billed Kite) found only along the Lower Rio Grande Valley and a fifth one (Snail Kite) that has been found once or twice and is considered an accidental. None of them is as elegant as the Swallow-tailed Kite. This species is rarely misidentified due to their size, striking appearance, and graceful aerial displays. During the day, they are typically seen flying low over treetops in search of small vertebrates or diving in pursuit of flying insects over open areas. The silhouette is distinctive with long, pointed wings and a deeply forked tail. Swallow-tailed Kites rarely flap their wings but continuously rotate their tail, sometimes nearly 90 degrees. When flying into the wind, they seem to hang motionless. Recently fledged birds have very short, stubby "scissors." Males and females are indistinguishable by plumage or size. The species' best distinguishing features include:
- striking black-and-white plumage
- deeply forked tail
- long, narrow, pointed wings that allow them to have graceful, extraordinary flight
- medium-sized raptor about 24" body length and 48" wing span
- inhabits bottomland forests and associated open lands (marshes, fields, cutovers, open freshwater, etc.)
In the U.S., the Swallow-tailed Kite currently nests only in the states along the Gulf Coast and other adjacent states; this is less than half of its historical breeding range in the U.S. Occasionally, these kites are seen statewide in Texas during spring and fall migration as well as all along the Gulf Coast. When nesting in Texas, Swallow-tailed Kites are most likely to be seen near large rivers, particularly the lower Trinity, lower Neches and lower Sabine river watersheds and associated bottomland hardwood forests. It is believed that they breed from mid-March through the end of June only in the southeast part of the state where preferred habitat exists. It is also believed that most of the Swallow-tailed Kites nesting in Texas migrate south each fall to the Coastal Prairies and then head along the Gulf of Mexico for the wintering grounds in South America. Like all migrating raptors, this species rides the thermals that are only produced over land so they do not cross the Gulf waters for long distances. Therefore, it is a circum-Gulf migrant versus a trans-Gulf migrant (the latter is a group which includes most warblers, vireos, tanagers, etc.).