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Swallow-tailed Kite - BirdForum Opus

Alternate name: American Swallow-tailed Kite; for the species Chelictinia riocourii, see Scissor-tailed Kite

Photo © by A. R. Forns
Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, Florida, USA, March 2007
Elanoides forficatus


Length: 52–66 cm (20½-26")
Striking black and white plumage with deeply forked tail is unique among raptors. Head, neck, underside, underwing coverts are white. Back, upperwing coverts, and all rectrices and remiges are black. Feet and bill are small, tarsi short. Bill is black with dark gray cere. Head has a small dove-like appearance. Iris is dark brown. Sexes alike.

Photo © by Scottishdude
Tampa, Florida, USA, 22 March 2006

Similar Species

Immature Magnificent Frigatebird is mostly black with white limited to head and chest. It also has much longer head, bill, and wing. Light morphs of Short-tailed Hawk and Swainson's Hawk have similar color pattern but lack the long forked tail.


North, Central and South America. In North America breeds in mainly coastal areas from South Carolina south to Florida and along the Gulf Coast into eastern Mexico. More common and widespread in Central America south to Panama and in South America from Colombia and Venezuela (rare in Trinidad) south to northern Argentina. Formerly more widespread in North America breeding as far north as Minnesota.
Northern birds are summer visitors and migrate in large flocks to winter in South America. Occasionally wanders north to the Great Lakes and New England. The only accepted record for the Western Palearctic is of a bird in the Canary Islands in 1993 although there are other more doubtful records from elsewhere including Britain.

Photo © by Joseph Morlan
Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge, St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, USA, 11 April 2009


Formerly placed in the genus Milvulus.


This is a polytypic species[1]. Two subspecies recognized with the nominate race averaging larger:

  • E. f. forficatus: Lowlands of coastal se US to n Mexico.
  • E. f. yetapa: S Mexico (except Yucatán Peninsula) to Brazil and ne Argentina


Open woodland and forest often near rivers and lakes. In the USA often occurs in cypress swamps and open pinewoods. On the U.S. Gulf Coast best place to observe swallow-tailed kites is in the air above wooded riparian corridors. One such place is Liberty-Dayton, Texas.



Nest is a flimsy, shallow cup of twigs lined with Spanish moss placed high (>30 m) in the crown of a tall tree. Several pairs may nest in close proximity. Clutch size is 2 or 3 white eggs with bold brown markings. Both parents incubate eggs and feed young.


Insects (termite and ant swarms), lizards, snakes, tree frogs, bird eggs and nestlings, and occasionally fruit. Constantly soars, capturing insect prey and feeding on the wing, or snatching prey from treetops, which it often consumes in flight. Does not hover.


Usually silent. Most vocal during display flights around nest. Calls consist of variations on a single short rising and falling note. Female's calls average higher pitched than male's.


Migratory in the north and south of range. Also local movements, including attitudinal shifts during the non-breeding season in Central and South America.


  1. Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2018. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2018. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
  2. Meyer, K. D. (1995). Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), 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.138
  3. Bierregaard, R.O., Jr & Kirwan, G.M. (2019). Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from https://www.hbw.com/node/52963 on 3 January 2019).
  4. Global Raptor Information Network. 2019. Species account: Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficatus. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 3 Jan. 2019

Recommended Citation

External Links

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