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 optimum time to spot a swallow-tailed kite in the Southeastern U.S.
The kite leaves its wintering habitat in northern South America, taking various migration routes – either over the Gulf of Mexico or around the Gulf through Central America and Mexico.
Final destination: the wooded wetlands and major river systems of Alabama, the Florida peninsula, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. The greatest breeding numbers, however, are found in Florida.
In Mississippi, the Pascagoula and the lower Pearl rivers are known to attract populations of the swallow-tailed kite each spring and summer. In 2005, 27 nesting pairs were seen soaring above the expansive bottomland forests and healthy marshes of the lower Pearl River.
Scientists estimate that the swallow-tailed kite only inhabits about 5 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.
- are the largest species of American kites;
- are birds of prey measuring 19 to 24 inches, including its tail which measures 12 to 15 inches in length;
- have wingspans reaching 50 inches;
- are easy to spot with its striking black and white plumage and deeply forked black tail;
- have long, narrow and pointed wings colored black above with white wing linings below.
- rarely flap their wings while flying, but almost continuously rotate their tail – often to a nearly 90 degree angle – to navigate above the tree tops or skim waterways;
- catch and eat their prey on the wing (while in flight), either plucking it from vegetation or from the air;
- eat dragonflies, butterflies, beetles, snakes, frogs, lizards, small birds and less often bats, fruit and small fish;
- drink on the wing as they skim the surface of rivers and marshes;
- need at least 100,000 acres of contiguous forest to maintain a healthy population;
- form breeding pairs before completing their migration, and then, together, choose a nest site at the top of a tall tree (most often pine), usually within 80 to 750 yards of other kites’ nests;
- typically lay 2 to 4 eggs per clutch, requiring a 21 to 24 day incubation period.
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 on-going effort since the 1970s.
Today, nearly 70,000 acres of bottomland forests and swamps are protected along the Pascagoula River, the nation’s largest unaltered 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 preserve 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.