White-tailed Kite

Bird of the Month: White-tailed Kite

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (White-tailed Kite)

PC: Mick Thompson (White-tailed Kite)

Scientific Name: Elanus leucurus

Length 15 in

Wingspan 39 in

AOU Band code WTKI

The White-tailed Kite (WTKI) is about 15” long with a wingspan of  39” and a weight of 12 oz. (340g). The genus name Elanus (EL-an-us) is Latin from the Greek elanos, kite, and elauno, to drive. The species name leucurus (lew-CUE-rus) is Latin from the Greek leukos, white, and oura, tail.

As recently as the 1940s this hawk was considered rare and endangered in North America, being restricted to a few places in California and Texas. Since then its numbers have greatly increased and spread into many new areas, including Washington where they are uncommon in the southwestern area of the state from mid-September to mid-May. Two of the best sites are the Raymond Airport (where the photo was taken by Ollie Oliver) and Julia Butler Hansen NWR. A most recent sighting was along Foster Road, west of Elma, on a field trip on Aug. 26, 2006. They are usually found in open groves, river valleys, marshes and grasslands. Their habitat preference seems to be trees for perching and nesting and open ground with large populations of rodents.

The WTKI feeds on small rodents, especially voles, by hovering in open country and diving on the prey feet-first. 
It was formerly known as a “Black-shouldered Kite”. Its most striking feature is its whiteness. When seen at a distance it appears almost totally white. Perched, the adult has a gray back, white belly, and black shoulders. In flight it is light gray above with black shoulders on inner wing. It is white from below, with black wing tips and black wrist patches on the underside of pointed wings.

For a raptor the WTKI  has an uncommonly graceful and buoyant flight. They are usually quiet, but may give repeated short “keep keep keep” calls, or a longer “kree-eek” given as an alarm call.
The pair builds a bulky stick platform nest high in a tree lined with grass, weeds and other soft vegetation. The female incubates 3-6 eggs, white with dark marks. Incubation is 26-32 days and the young fledge after 33-37 days. They sometimes have two broods.