At a Glance
Our most beautiful bird of prey, striking in its shape, its pattern, and its extraordinarily graceful flight. Hanging motionless in the air, swooping and gliding, rolling upside down and then zooming high in the air with scarcely a motion of its wings, the Swallow-tailed Kite is a joy to watch. At one time it was common in summer over much of the southeast, but today it is found mostly in Florida and a few other areas of the deep south.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Hawk-like Birds, Hawks and Eagles
Coasts and Shorelines, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Forests and Woodlands, Freshwater Wetlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
Florida, Mid Atlantic, New England, Southeast, Texas
Direct Flight, Soaring
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Migration is early in both spring and fall, with Florida birds arriving February-March, departing August-September. Some migrate around Gulf of Mexico but most Florida birds apparently cross Caribbean; their migration is poorly known.
22-24" (56-61 cm). W. 4' 2 (1.3 m). Almost unmistakable: blue-gray on back, white on head and underparts, with long, forked, black tail. Frigatebirds are much larger, long-billed, lack white wing-linings.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Long, Pointed, Swept, Tapered
Songs and Calls
A shrill klee-klee-klee.
Hi, Scream, Whistle
Wooded river swamps. Requires tall trees for nesting and nearby open country with abundant prey. In North America found mostly in open pine woods near marsh or prairie, cypress swamps, other riverside swamp forest. In tropics, also found in lowland rain forest and mountain cloud forest.
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2, sometimes 1-3. Creamy white, marked with dark brown. Incubation is by both parents, about 28-31 days.
During first week after hatching, young are brooded almost continuously by female. Male brings food to nest, and female feeds it to young. After about 2-3 weeks, female also may hunt and bring food to nest. Young may move about in nest tree after about 5 weeks, first fly at about 5-6 weeks.
Extremely maneuverable in flight. Catches flying insects in the air. Takes much of its food by swooping low over trees or lower growth, picking small creatures from the twigs or leaves without pausing. Young birds of other species are probably taken out of their nests.
Insects, frogs, lizards, birds. Adults apparently feed mostly on large insects at most times of year, including dragonflies, wasps, beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, many others. Especially when feeding young, will capture many frogs, lizards, snakes, nestling birds. In tropics, also eats small fruits.
Courtship may involve aerial chases by both sexes; male may feed female. Nest site is in tall tree in open woodland, usually in pine, sometimes in cypress, cottonwood, or other tree. Typically places nest near top of one of the tallest trees available, more than 60' above ground. Nest (built by both sexes) is platform of small sticks, lined with soft lichens and Spanish moss.
Formerly more widespread in southeast, north as far as Minnesota, but disappeared from many areas in early 20th century. Current population apparently stable.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Swallow-tailed Kite. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Swallow-tailed 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.