At a Glance

In the wide-open marshes of central Florida, this broad-winged bird glides slowly and low over the sawgrass. It has no need for fast flight, because it seeks only snails -- and only one particular sort, the apple snail. This snail is strongly affected by water levels, and drainage of wetlands has hurt populations of both the snail and the kite. The Florida race of this bird, formerly called Everglades Kite, is now endangered.
Category
Hawk-like Birds, Hawks and Eagles
Conservation
Low Concern
Habitat
Freshwater Wetlands, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers
Region
Florida
Behavior
Direct Flight, Soaring
Population
2.000.000

Range & Identification

Migration & Range Maps

Apparently not migratory, but nomadic, moving around in response to changing water levels.

Description

16-18" (41-46 cm). W. 3' 8 (1.1 m). Broad wingtips, deeply hooked bill, orange-red legs and face. Male has slaty black, with much white at base of tail. Female browner, with white marks on face and streaks below, barring on wing feathers.
Size
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Color
Black, Brown, Red, White
Wing Shape
Broad, Fingered
Tail Shape
Rounded, Square-tipped

Songs and Calls

Low cackles and chatters when disturbed.
Call Pattern
Flat

Habitat

Fresh marshes and canals. In Florida, found at large freshwater lakes and marshes. Favors shallow waters, with stands of sawgrass and cattails mixed with areas of open water and with a few shrubs or low trees. In the American tropics, also in wet savannahs, rice fields, sugarcane fields.

Behavior

Eggs

Currently in Florida, usually 2-3. Formerly may have laid more eggs there, regularly 4, rarely 5-6; smaller clutches today may be response to lowered food supply. Eggs white, marked with brown. Incubation is by both parents, 26-28 days. Young: Both parents feed the young at first, bringing them snails. After 3-6 weeks, one parent (either one) usually departs, may find another mate and nest again. Remaining parent cares for young until they are 9-11 weeks old. Young may climb out of nest at 4-5 weeks, can fly well at 6-7 weeks.

Young

Both parents feed the young at first, bringing them snails. After 3-6 weeks, one parent (either one) usually departs, may find another mate and nest again. Remaining parent cares for young until they are 9-11 weeks old. Young may climb out of nest at 4-5 weeks, can fly well at 6-7 weeks.

Feeding Behavior

Hunts by gliding slowly and low over marsh, dropping to pick up snail with one foot from surface of water or plants. Sometimes perches low, scanning surrounding area for snails, then flies to catch one. Kite flies to perch, holds snail with one foot while extracting snail from shell with long, curved upper mandible of bill.

Diet

Large snails. Under normal conditions, Florida birds live almost entirely on large apple snails (genus Pomacea). When the snails become scarce, as during drought, the kites may eat many small turtles. Also rarely eat small snails, rodents, crabs.

Nesting

Usually nests in loose colonies. In courtship, male flies up and dives short distance repeatedly near female; flies with exaggerated deep wingbeats. Male may feed snails to female. Nest site is over water in shrub or low tree, sometimes in cattails or sawgrass, usually 3-15' above water, rarely up to 30' or higher. Nest (built mostly by male) is bulky platform of sticks and twigs, lined with vines and weeds.

Climate Vulnerability

Conservation Status

The Florida population is endangered; disruption of water flow (with impact on habitat and snail populations) is the main cause. Recently an exotic species of apple snail, larger than the local native species, has become established in Florida. The impact of this exotic on the Snail Kites is still uncertain: it might harm the birds by outcompeting the native snail, or the kites may adapt to feeding mainly on the newly established species.

Climate Map

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Snail Kite. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.

Climate Threats Facing the Snail Kite

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.