Florida, surrounded on three sides by water, acts as a funnel for birds migrating across the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico each winter. For most, these perilous, even herculean, long-distance marathons require tremendous amounts of energy and luck. As Swallow-tailed Kites tell us, certain locations in the Everglades serve as the last chance to refuel before their trans-oceanic migrations.
Named for their deeply forked tail, this iconic, black-and-white acrobat of the sky is a veritable sign of spring for many Floridians. In mid-February, Swallow-tailed Kites begin arriving from their wintering grounds in Brazil and Argentina, moving farther northward to the Panhandle within a few weeks. They nest across Florida and the Southeast from South Carolina to Louisiana.
Swallow-tailed Kites are voracious predators that hunt on the wing. Soaring effortlessly, they use their forked tail to maneuver amidst the tree canopy, using their feet to artfully snatch prey. Their diet includes lizards, snakes, insects, frogs, and nestling birds. They can also grab flying insects out of the air.
These birds are colonial, meaning they travel, sleep, and breed in groups. With long migratory journeys, Swallow-tailed Kites need a variety of natural spaces to survive. They gather to nest in forested areas near water, where prey are abundant. Habitats that offer this combination of resources are becoming harder to find in Florida due to urbanization, altered water flows, and logging. In addition to loss or degradation of their habitat, kites are also threatened by overuse of pesticides that can reduce the availability of food and clean water.
In July, Swallow-tailed Kites begin their annual return to wintering grounds, staging by the thousands in locations like Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. They arrive with the anticipation of finding enough food to build energy reserves before making their way back to South America. They know that in addition to providing safe habitat for breeding, Corkscrew Swamp serves up a sumptuous buffet of insects and other prey items rich in protein.
By expanding green spaces, adopting bird-safe building codes, working with farmers on sustainable forest management, and landscaping with native plants, we can make Florida a better place for Swallow-tailed Kites and people.
See the kites’ entire flight path with the Bird Migration Explorer from Audubon's Migratory Bird Initiative and partners at: explorer.audubon.org
This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of The Naturalist magazine.