Ecological Significance, History and Range
The swallow-tailed kite is a graceful raptor with a seemingly effortless soaring ability, making it a favorite among birder-watchers. March to September is the optimal time to spot a swallow-tailed kite in the Southeastern U.S.
Kites leave their wintering habitats in northern South America, taking various migration routes—either over the Gulf of Mexico or around the Gulf through Central America and Mexico. Their destinations are the wooded wetlands and major river systems of Alabama, the Florida peninsula, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. In Mississippi, the Pascagoula and the lower Pearl rivers are known to attract populations of the swallow-tailed kite each spring and summer.
Kites need at least 100,000 acres of contiguous forest to maintain healthy populations. Scientists estimate that the swallow-tailed kite only inhabits about five percent of its historic range. Prior to the early 1900s, kites were abundant and known to nest in 21 states, including most of Florida, the southeastern U.S. coastal region and throughout the Mississippi Valley as far north as Wisconsin.
Today, the global population of swallow-tailed kites is estimated to be 150,000. Considered a species of conservation concern in Mississippi, the swallow-tailed is one of the most threatened land birds currently without federal protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Populations of the swallow-tailed kite declined rapidly in the last century. Widespread habitat loss and the on-going conversion of bottomland forests for agriculture and development purposes continue to threaten the recovery of this species. Other activities such as the collection of eggs and the shooting of adults also contributed to population losses.
Swallow-tailed kites are easy to spot with their four-foot wingspan, striking black and white plumage, and deeply forked tail. They have long narrow wings and rarely flap while they’re flying. They catch and eat their prey while in flight, either plucking it from vegetation or out of the air. Kites eat dragonflies, butterflies, beetles, snakes, frogs, lizards, and small birds. They form breeding pairs before completing their migration, and then, together, choose a nest site at the top of a tall tree
What The Nature Conservancy Is Doing
The Conservancy and its partners are working along the Pascagoula and lower Pearl rivers to protect the forests, swamps and marshes essential to the survival of swallow-tailed kites, an ongoing effort since the 1970s.
Today, nearly 70,000 acres of bottomland forests and swamps are protected along the Pascagoula River, the nation’s largest undammed river system. In 2001, the Conservancy helped establish the Pascagoula River Basin Alliance, a coalition of public, private and individual stakeholders who use research, communication and action to ensure the Pascagoula remains one of the nation’s best preserved river systems.
The Conservancy owns and manages five preserves in the lower Pearl River Basin, totaling more than 6,400 acres, and helped secure 13,206 acres for the Old River Wildlife Management Area managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks.
The Conservancy also helped purchase 22,765 acres in the lower Pearl basin for the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, creating a vital wildlife corridor by connecting the land to the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area in Louisiana.
The Conservancy’s Mississippi and Louisiana programs, in collaboration with the state agencies, created the Lower Pearl Partnership in 2002. The Lower Pearl Partnership is working with public and private stakeholders to restore and protect ecologically significant areas on the Pearl River and its tributaries.