White-tailed Kite

Elanus leucurus

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 1995
  • Jeffrey R. Dunk

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Figure 1. Distribution of the White-tailed Kite in North and Middle America.

It is a winter visitor and rare breeder outside of limits shown. This species also breeds in South America; see text for details.

Immature White-tailed Kite, California

Basic I plumage.  Note pale-tipped upper-wing coverts, and brown feathers on mantle -- retained Juvenal plumage. ; photographer Brian E. Small

Adult White-tailed Kite, California, November

Channel Is., CA, November.; photographer Brian L. Sullivan

Although threatened with extinction in North America during the early twentieth century, the White-tailed Kite has recovered since then, expanding its range in the U.S. from small portions of California, Texas, and Florida to Oregon and Washington, as well as into Middle America. Many North American populations have declined during the 1980s and 1990s, however, apparently because of habitat loss and perhaps increased disturbance.

This kite inhabits open grasslands and savannah-like habitats. It is a conspicuous bird, easily identified by its bright plumage and characteristic hovering while hunting for its main prey, small mammals. Nonbreeding populations of this species are limited primarily by food, whereas breeding populations appear limited both by food and nest-site availability. Territory size in this kite is a function of both prey and competitor abundance. During the nonbreeding season, it roosts communally, with more than 100 individuals counted at key roosts.

Like most kites, this species is generally easy to observe, especially when foraging; many studies have been published on its foraging ecology. Less is known about its breeding behavior, habitat selection, demography, and genetics. Although some populations fluctuate regularly in size, it is unknown whether this species is migratory, nomadic, or both.

Recommended Citation

Dunk, J. R. (1995). White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.178