by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
In celebration of National Bird Day 2013, Barry Kent MacKay and Monica Engebretson — senior campaign associates for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiasts — are taking turns in December and January to describe some of their favorite avian species. Below is the fifth installment, written by Barry.
My first thought was a frigatebird, but that made no sense as I was far inland, and frigatebirds are seabirds. But the long black tail, long black wings, white head and buoyant flight reminded me of frigatebirds I had seen, so this could only be … of course: my first ever swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus), flying off in the distance over lowland forest in the middle of Central America. Just a tantalizing glimpse.
(Click to see a larger version.)
A few years later I was back in Central America, on a mountain slope, looking up at more of these fantastic birds, only now they were close by and I could see details of their stubby little blue-gray feet, liquid dark eyes and the bold contours of their overlong wings and tails. Most pleasing of all, I could observe their almost supernaturally adept flying skills, so thrilling to observe. They were snatching beetles from the uppermost branches and leaves of the trees beside me, twisting and turning and at times seeming to deny the pull of gravity. Their powers of flight are outstanding.
“Kite,” as it refers to birds, is a term Americans are less familiar with than folks in other English-speaking countries. It can be applied to any of a range of small- to medium-sized hawk-like birds usually characterized by superb flying skills. There is a quite elegant but otherwise quite different species in Africa called the African swallow-tailed kite, also known as the scissor-tailed kite, or the fork-tailed kite (Chelictinia riocourii). It is smaller in size and shorter of tail than the American species, and is colored in gray and white.
The American species is a subtly glossy black above with a dark, powdery maroon “bloom” across the upper back and upper wing, and a snow-white head and underparts. A model of aerodynamic perfection, they weigh in at only about 375 grams, just over 13 ounces, and yet they appear to be a heavier, medium-large hawk. They can snatch insects in flight, catch tiny hummingbirds, and will snatch small nests with their entire contents of baby birds, to be carried to their nests to feed their own young. Small reptiles and amphibians can be a significant part of the diet. Oddly for a bird of prey, they also will seize and consume some fruit from forest trees.
There are two subspecies of swallow-tailed kite, one found in Florida and along the coastal regions of the Southeastern United States and northern Mexico, the other from Central America south deep into South America, where it is widely distributed from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic, including throughout Amazonia. They are so similar that they have to be seen in the hand to tell them apart.
Those birds found in the United States have been known to wonder as far north as Ontario, but they spend the winter in South America. Birds who breed in the extreme southern part of their range migrate north for the Austral winter. They like tropical and subtropical zone forests and clearings, and in some regions favor wooded swamps and open marshes.
In his book “The Hawks of North America,” published by The National Association of Audubon Societies in 1935, John Bichard May wrote that although it was “potentially valuable as a destroyer of injurious insects,” the swallow-tailed kite was “… becoming extremely rare and is threatened with early extermination unless public opinion can be aroused in its behalf and the public educated to protect it. It should be given complete protection at all times.” (Emphasis his.)
That decline continued until the 1950s, and the species was extirpated from much of its range. But education and conservation can work, and the species has since been slowly staging a comeback. Fully protected, hunters no longer routinely shoot them, and the biggest threat they face is loss of habitat. Given the extent of their range they are not presently at serious risk, and future generations of us will be able to thrill at the incredible flying skills of future generations of them.