At a Glance
As recently as the 1940s, this graceful hawk was considered rare and endangered in North America, restricted to a few sites in California and Texas. In recent decades, it has increased greatly in numbers and spread into many new areas. It is often seen hovering on rapidly beating wings over open fields, looking for small rodents, its main food source. The introduction of the house mouse from Europe may have played a part in its increase; formerly, the kite fed almost entirely on voles.
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, Desert and Arid Habitats, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
California, Florida, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, Texas
Direct Flight, Hovering
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
No regular migration, but wanders widely.
15-16" (38-41 cm). W. 3' 4 (1 m). Gray and white, with black on shoulders and under bend of wing. May suggest a gull more than another hawk. Juvenile has brown markings on chest and back, but basic pattern is recognizable.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Black, Gray, Yellow
Long, Notched, Rounded, Square-tipped
Songs and Calls
A whistled keep-keep-keep; also a longer, plaintive kreep.
Falling, Flat, Rising
Chirp/Chip, Scream, Whistle
Open groves, river valleys, marshes, grasslands. Found in a wide variety of open habitats in North America, including open oak grassland, desert grassland, farm country, marshes. Main requirements seem to be trees for perching and nesting, and open ground with high populations of rodents.
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Usually 4, sometimes 5, rarely 3-6. May tend to lay larger clutches in years when rodents are abundant. Eggs creamy white, blotched with shades of warm brown. Incubation is by female, 26-32 days. Male usually perches nearby, and brings food to female during incubation. Young: Female broods young while they are small; male brings food, and female feeds it to nestlings. Later, prey is dropped into nest, and young feed on it themselves. Young are able to fly at about 30-35 days, but may return to nest to sleep or to be fed for some time after. Adults may nest a 2nd time in same season, and if so, young from first nesting may be driven from territory.
Female broods young while they are small; male brings food, and female feeds it to nestlings. Later, prey is dropped into nest, and young feed on it themselves. Young are able to fly at about 30-35 days, but may return to nest to sleep or to be fed for some time after. Adults may nest a 2nd time in same season, and if so, young from first nesting may be driven from territory.
Hunts mostly by flying over open country, pausing frequently to hover and study the ground; on sighting prey, it dives, catching prey in its talons.
Mostly small rodents. Specializes on small rodents that are active by day in open country, particularly voles and house mice. Other items in diet, mostly of minor importance, include pocket gophers, harvest mice, rats, shrews, young rabbits, sometimes birds. Rarely may eat snakes, lizards, frogs, large insects.
In courtship, male flies near female in odd hovering with wings in sharp "V," calling; male feeds female. Nest site is in top of tree, usually 20-50' above ground, sometimes higher or lower depending on available sites. Live-oak often chosen as nest site. Nest (built by both sexes) is a good-sized platform of sticks and twigs, lined with grasses, weeds, Spanish moss.
North American population has been increasing and spreading since about the 1930s, invading many new areas where it was never known historically. Has also spread and increased in American tropics with clearing of forest.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the White-tailed Kite. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the White-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.