Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus)

Swallow-tailed Kite

[order] ACCIPITRIFORMES | [family] Accipitridae | [latin] Elanoides forficatus | [authority] Linnaeus, 1758 | [UK] Swallow-tailed Kite | [FR] Milan a queue fourchue | [DE] Schwalbenweih | [ES] Elanio Tijereta | [NL] Zwaluwstaartwouw


Monotypic species


Members of the genus Elanoides are long-tailed mainly two-colored birds. The members are social birds, gregarious and family bound, often breeding in loose colonies. The genus consists of only one species.

Physical charateristics

The most notable feature of this Kite is the deeply forked swallow-like tail. The structure of the tail enables this kite to fly well at low speeds. The wings are long and thin, enabling flight at high speeds as well. Adults, sexes are alike, have black wings with white undersides, white heads, necks, and underparts. The tail and upperparts are iridescent black, with streaks of green, purple, and bronze. Juveniles look similar to adults but with slightly streaked heads and underparts, as well as shorter white-tipped tails.

Listen to the sound of Swallow-tailed Kite

[audio:http://www.planetofbirds.com/MASTER/ACCIPITRIFORMES/Accipitridae/sounds/Swallow-tailed Kite.mp3]

Copyright remark: Most sounds derived from xeno-canto

wingspan min.: 114 cm wingspan max.: 127 cm
size min.: 49 cm size max.: 65 cm
incubation min.: 26 days incubation max.: 29 days
fledging min.: 36 days fledging max.: 29 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 1  
      eggs max.: 3  


North America, Latin America : South USA to Northeast Argentina. In North America, the Swallow-tailed Kite breeds at a few scattered locations in the southeastern coastal plane, from extreme east Texas to South Carolina. The greatest breeding densities occur in Florida’s peninsula, the only place where the range is continuous. In the 1800’s, the Swallow-tailed Kite nested as far north as Wisconsin and ranged over as many as 21 eastern states. A population of Swallow-tailed Kites also breeds from southern Mexico through Central America and much of South America. North American kites winter in South America, but blend into resident populations, so that their exact distribution is not understood


Swallow-tailed kites occupy wooded swamps, open forests, lake shores, and freshwater marshes. They nest near sources of water in tall trees, anywhere from 18 to 40 meters above the ground.


Swallow-tailed kites are monogamous, although pair bonds are not necessarily maintained between breeding seasons. Females and males will approach each other on a horizontal tree limb. The female will quickly go under the limb or turn, bending forward with the wings extended. The male lands on her back and drapes his wings over the female, then mating occurs.

Swallow-tailed kites breed once per year, usually in April. They produce loud shrills, squealing calls, and whistles during the mating season. Females usually lay two eggs per clutch. The eggs are incubated for approximately 28 days, and the fledgling period lasts anywhere from 36 to 42 days. Fledglings can take an additional 2 weeks or more to become independent. Not much is known about the degree of parental investment in swallow-tailed kites. Both parents incubate the eggs. Young are altricial. Males bring back food while females watch the young and protect the nest. Towards the end of the nesting period both parents will hunt. After fledging the adults continue to provide food for their young.
As with some other kites there is a tendency towards social nesting: several pairs within a few hundred yards. Some nesting individuals, presumably hatched the preceding year, are not quite in fully adult feather.

Feeding habits

Swallow-tailed kites are primarily insectivorous, snatching and feeding on flying insects in mid-air, but they are also known to capture other prey, such as snakes, frogs, and nestlings and fledglings. They do not hover and usually eat prey in mid-flight. They also drink in flight in a fashion similar to swallows, by skimming the water.

Video Swallow-tailed Kite


copyright: Bill Wayman


This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
The Swallow-tailed Kite is the very epitome of graceful and sustained flight; the forked tail, often spread, but frequently opened and closed like a scissors, helps in manoeuvring. The size of this kite makes it more graceful in flight than smaller fork-tailed species like terns and swallows.
It is usually seen on the wing, coursing over the country at various heights and often doing aerial gymnastics, especially during the breeding season. It is sometimes seen perched, especially during heavy grey weather.
Although mostly a forest bird, it ranges over mixed country or even grasslands. It is a social species, especially on migration, when it is often in the company of the Plumbeous Kite. It tends to be a wanderer when not breeding.
The Swallow-tailed Kite feeds on the wing. Insects are taken and eaten in flight. During the nesting season this kite searches for, and robs, the nests of small birds. Sometimes it carries away an entire nest, eating the fledglings as it flies along. It does not land, but may flutter for a few moments while taking a nest. It eats eggs as well as nestlings, and small lizards and arboreal snakes are also taken. It is social when feeding, as at other times. It drinks from the surface of a pond in the style of a swallow. This species is common in Suriname, it can be seen along the shores of Brokopondo lake and aside the long roads crossing the coastal plain.
Swallow-tailed Kite status Least Concern


Migratory in North and South of range. In late July, early August, large concentrations at communal night roosts (over 1300 birds leaving one morning) at Lake Okeechobee, Florida, apparently a staging post prior to southward migration. Departs from Peten by the end of August. Arrives in Costa Rica in January, all birds disappearing by July or early August. Arrives in Florida in March, in Peten in early February. Birds ringed in USA have been shot while wintering in South and South East Brazil. Over most of South American range, unclear where species is resident and where only migrant, as very few breeding records. Birds in breeding condition in South East Colombia (Vaupes), but otherwise most of Colombian birds may be migrants. In Amazonia, only one nest reported on upper Rio Negro, Brazil, although species doubtless breeds in the region. Nomadic at least in parts of South America over rain forest. Wanders to 2600 m in Andes of Colombia, and recorded at 5000 m near Lima, Peru. Accidental in Bahamas. Probably sedentary in Suriname, nests have been recorded.

Distribution map

Swallow-tailed Kite distribution range map


Abstract: We studied the reproductive behavior of Swallow-ta..[more]..
Source: Wilson Bull., 109(l), 1997, pp. 112-120

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Title Roosting habits of the Swallow-tailed Kite.
Abstract: Surinam the Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forfica..[more]..
Source: The Auk, 94(2)

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Author(s): Lawrence Kilham
Abstract: Snyder( 1974) has described the breeding biology o..[more]..
Source: Raptor Research 14(1):29-31

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Author(s): KENNETH D. MEYER et al
Abstract: We studied the diets of nesting Swallowtailed Kite..[more]..
Source: The Condor 106:171-176, 2004

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Abstract: The Swallow-tailed Kite (
Elanoides forficatus
Source: Florida Field Naturalist 30(2):41, 2002

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