The graceful, strikingly marked Swallow-tailed Kite rarely flaps its wings while flying, but almost continuously moves its tail—sometimes to nearly 90 degrees—to maintain a flight path, make a sharp turn, or circle. The species’ northern populations are migratory and come together with the non-migratory, southern populations in the wintertime.
In North America, this species once occurred up the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, along the Missouri River, and north along the Mississippi River into Kansas and Missouri. These northern populations were extirpated when the bottomland and riparian forests along these rivers were cut in the 1800s and early 1900s.
The Swallow-tailed Kite’s main prey items are flying insects such as dragonflies and cicadas, which are captured and eaten on the wing; these aerial acrobats also snag insects and lizards as they skim across the treetops.
These are unusually gregarious raptors, and several pairs may nest in close proximity. Successful nesting requires tall, living trees and nearby open areas to hunt prey. The birds may roost communally at night, and some pre-migratory roosts may attract hundreds.
The main threat to this kite is habitat loss and degradation, especially the loss of tall trees due to logging, clearing for agriculture, or other development. Although the species’ U.S. population seems to be increasing due to re-growth of trees in many riparian areas, the trend may not be long-lasting, as these trees are now threatened by development.
Recommended conservation measures include avoiding cutting of trees around active nests and protection of large pre-migration communal roosts, which are used year after year.
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