White-tailed Kites

August 10, 2021

Today while out on the mitigation lands the air was full of the screeching sound of juvenile White-tailed Kites, Elanus leucurus, begging for their parents. I looked around for where that sound was emanating from and saw three juvenile kites sitting on top of a large Oregon Ash tree. What I noticed right away is that all three were lifting and lowering their tails, and I thought it must be to help them balance on the end of the twiggy branches they seem to like to stand on. Their tails were held straight up as they made their screechy calls. Their rusty coloring on their chest show that they are juveniles and not adult kites, which have bright white chests and bellies.

The White-tailed Kite is a bird of grasslands and savannahs, marshes, and cultivated fields. They have a small range in the United States, but they occur throughout the Americas, breeding as far south as Chile and Argentina. According to Cornell Labs – All About Birds, their numbers declined by 34% between 1970 and 2014 probably due to a decrease of habitat. A conservation effort initiated by the California Fish and Wildlife in northern California set aside some grazed pastures and allowed them to return to grasslands. These grasslands now support 10 times the raptors, including White-tailed Kites, as before the program began.

White-tailed Kites eat mainly small mammals, specializing on rodents that are active by day in open country. They prefer California meadow voles but the introduction from Europe of the house mouse, which they hunt, may also be helping their population to increase. They also eat other birds, lizards, snakes, and insects occasionally. They hunt while hovering as high as 80 feet off the ground and doing an action with their wings called kiting, looking down while staying in one place. I love to see them doing this motion as their kiting is very beautiful against the blue sky, especially when there are two or more of them in the air. Last fall I wrote here about seeing 22 of them kiting and flying above my head in the valley sky but recently have learned that there are areas where they communally roost where over 100 kites have been seen. What a sight that must be.

Today I watch as these three juveniles beg to their parents, while the parents don’t seem to be feeding them at all and just seem to be yelling back at them. Maybe they are telling those young adult sized birds to get off their duff and hunt on their own or maybe instructing them, but either way it is quite entertaining to see all that activity. This is part of the cycle of life out here, and since sometimes White-tailed Kites will nest more than once in a season, these young may need to move on and make room for more kites.