Birds – Swallow Tailed Kite

(Elanoides forficatus)

Called also: FORK-TAILED KITE ; SNAKE HAWK.

Length—About 24 inches, or according to development of tail. Wing spread about 4 feet.

Male and Female—Head, neck, under parts, including wing linings, band across lower back, snow white ; rest of plum-age glossy black, showing violet and green reflections. Bill bluish black; feet and very short legs, light. Tail 14 inches long and cleft like a swallow’s for half its length.

Range—United States, especially in the interior, from Pennsylvania and the great plains southward to Central and South America. Casual in New England, Minnesota, Manitoba, and Assiniboia; nesting irregularly throughout its range ; winters chiefly south of United States.

Season—Summer resident. April to October.

Not excepting even the turkey vulture, the tern or the swallow, no bird moves through the sky with more exquisite grace and buoyancy than this beautiful black and white, sharp winged kite, whose motion combines the special fascinations of each of its three close rivals. Soaring upward, buzzard fashion, until it sometimes fades from sight, or floating like it on motionless pinions; now swooping with the dash of a tern and catching itself suddenly just above the earth to skim along the surface like a swallow; swaying its trim body with a cut of the wing and the lashing of its long forked tail, it pauses neither for rest nor food, but apparently spends every waking moment in the air. It is supposed it even sleeps while it floats, so little conscious effort is evident in its flight; and it feeds a-wing by tearing off bits of the snake; or other prey, firmly grasped in its small feet. This has been seized while passing and without pause. In this way too the bird takes a drink. Because they are so little used for walking, for one almost never sees this kite on the ground, its legs are very short and all but invisible.

Most abundant in the western division of the Gulf states and above the great plains, the numbers of this bird—let it be recorded—nowhere seem to have diminished, since it feeds almost exclusively on snakes, lizards, and the larger insects such as locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers, and never on other birds. Even the dullest mind recognizes it as harmless and beneficent. Naturally a bird so little persecuted shows no great fear of man. Its shrill, penetrating wee-wee-wee has been uttered in the very ears of a picnic party within sight of a huge hotel in Minnesota.

But when the nesting season arrives, these kites seek out uninhabited, inaccessible regions where it is well worth while to follow them, however, since their flight, always charming, dashing, and elegant, now assumes matchless perfection impossible to describe. Even their wooing is done on the wing. Several pairs may build in a neighborhood, which is usually a dense wood near water that attracts their prey within easy reach; and at the top of some tall, straight tree, anywhere from sixty to one hundred and forty feet from the ground, an irregular nest of large loose twigs, lined or unlined with moss, may likely as not rise from the foundations of one used the previous year. From two to four white eggs, boldly spotted or blotched with different shades of brown, are laid any time from April to June, according to the latitude. It is thought both kites take turns at the incubating, which is closely attended to; or at least the male is particularly devoted to his sitting mate, always being seen near by. In leaving the nest a bird rises upward suddenly as if sent up by a spring, instead of flying sidewise as most birds do; and in alighting it first poises itself directly above the eggs, then descends on apparently motionless wings so softly and lightly the large body might be a single feather dropping from the sky.