The long forked tail and striking black & white plumage render the Swallow-tailed Kite unmistakable in flight. They are large, graceful raptors that float effortlessly when soaring or hunting on the wing, and are highly maneuverable when swooping and diving for dragonflies. They also pluck reptiles, birds, and other prey items directly from treetops. Swallow-tailed Kites are rarely seen perched, except occasionally in early morning before thermals develop.
Swallow-tailed Kites are fairly common across most of Florida, but are local elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. They have withdrawn from their historic breeding range, which spanned the Mississippi floodplain north to Minnesota due to logging of bottomland forest, agriculture, and human persecution. Swallow-tailed Kites are beginning to return to former breeding areas, especially in east Texas and Louisiana. They are rare but regular vagrants north of their mapped range, mainly seen in late spring.
Swallow-tailed Kites nest in large trees along swampy river systems across the Southeast, but regularly stray north and sometimes west of their mapped range, especially in late spring. Swallow-tailed Kites are generally gregarious, nesting in loose colonies and gathering in large communal roosts, especially just prior to fall migration, when over 1000 may stage together at a single site. On the breeding grounds, Swallow-tailed Kites give a shrill, emphatic whistle “klee klee KLEE!”
Similar in size to Ospreys, but much slender and more pointed-winged.
Most distinctive trait is exceptionally long, forked tail that looks like two streamers trailing behind them.
Appear to float effortlessly and gracefully, gaining lift when needed with seemingly ease.
Rarely flap to stay aloft, but when they do, the wing beats are slow, elastic, and relaxed, often interspersed with long glides.
When soaring, the wings are held slightly bowed.
Glide with wings strongly drooped and swept back.
Remarkably white body, underwing coverts, and head offset by black wing and tail feathers.
Upperside is dark gray with an iridescent greenish or purplish cast, and black upper back and ‘shoulders’.
Adults are clean white below, and average longer tails than 1st-year birds, which are washed buffy on the breast when newly fledged.
Swallow-tailed Kite is a long-distance migrant, vacating North America for the winter. Trans-Gulf migration takes place mainly from late February through April, and August through September. Large flocks stage in late summer in southern Florida. Migrants leave Florida on favorable winds and cross directly to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, where they stage again before continuing south over land to winter in northern South America. A fair number move through the coastal bend of Texas. A few are seen along the East Coast as far north as southern Canada every spring and fall.
(Map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds. For dynamic distribution maps, visit the eBird website.)