Birds – The Kites (subfamily Elanince)

A considerable number of accipitrine birds are known, and properly so, as Kites, since they possess at least the common character of lightness, ease, and grace on the wing that is the common property of but few birds. A more careful study of their structure, however, has shown that beyond this gracefulness of flight they are not all equally related. The so-called Kites of the genus Elanus may be regarded as typical of a subfamily, — the Elanince. The genus is of wide distribution, ranging over the whole of Africa, the Indian peninsula, the Indo-Malayan islands, and Australia, and in the New World from the southern United States over the whole of Central and South America. Five species are known, all small birds from twelve to sixteen inches in length The tail is double-rounded and not deeply forked as in the true Kites, while the tarsus is naked in front and covered with minute roundish scales, and the claws are not grooved beneath as in some of their allies. The White-tailed Kite (E. leucurus) is the only American species. It is pale bluish gray above, becoming entirely white on head and tail, and pure white below, while the lesser wing-coverts and a spot in front of the eye are black. It is rather a rare bird in the United States east of the Mississippi, being perhaps most frequently met with in California, though nowhere abundant, while in many parts of South America it is a not uncommon species. It frequents the lowlands, where it may be seen beating back and forth over the surface of the ground, poising for a moment on rapidly beating wings as it scans the surface for its prey, on which it plunges with almost meteoric speed, or passes on in further quest. Of its habits in Argentina, Mr. Hudson writes: “It is a handsome bird, with large ruby-red irides, and when seen at a distance its snow-white plumage and buoyant flight give it a striking resemblance to a Gull. Its wing power is, indeed, marvelous. It delights to soar, like the Martins, during a high wind, and will spend hours in this sport, rising and falling alternately, and at times, seeming to abandon itself to the fury of the gale, is blown away like thistle-down, until, recovering itself, it shoots back to its original position. Where there are tall poplar trees these birds amuse themselves with outspread wings, each bird on a separate tree, until the treetops are swept by the wind from under them, when they often remain poised almost motionless in the air until the twigs return to their feet. When looking out for prey, this Kite usually maintains a height of sixty or seventy feet above the ground, and in its actions strikingly resembles a fishing Gull, frequently remaining poised in the air with body motionless and wings rapidly vibrating.” The food of the White-tailed Kite consists of snakes, lizards, frogs, mice, grasshoppers, and an occasional small bird. The favorite nesting site appears to be in live-oak trees, but other trees, such as cottonwoods and maples, are sometimes selected. The nest is usually well up from the ground, and composed of coarse sticks and lined with bark, straw, etc. In the United States the number of eggs in a set is usually four or five, whereas in Argentina the number appears to be eight. They are creamy white, heavily marked over their entire surface with irregular blotches and smears of dark blood-red and claret-brown. But a single brood is reared in a year, both parents assisting in the care of the young.