This article first appeared in the February 2004 issue of the San Antonio
I had thought to begin this essay with a brief outline of the taxonomy of the diurnal birds of prey and our local Kites’ place in the scheme of things. Turns out things are a little complicated right now; the American Ornithologist’s Union has placed our local Vultures with the Storks (Order Ciconiformes) keeping all the rest in the Falconiformes. Recent DNA studies indicate that ALL the Falconiformes might properly belong in a greatly enlarged Ciconiformes, along with Penguins, Loons, Grebes, Cormorants etc., Gulls etc. and, of course, Storks. All authorities seem to agree that our familiar Hawks, Eagle, Harriers and Kites all belong in a single Family, the Accipitridae.
The term “Kite” is generally taken to mean a lightweight, long-winged social raptor. “Kite” is also a verb describing the graceful, feet-first controlled descent on to prey as practiced by many Kite species. As a group, Kites do not fall into a tidy taxonomic unit; some authors have placed different species in as many as three separate subfamilies. It has been suggested that this diversity as well as the number of oddly specialized species indicate that Kites are among the oldest groups of raptors. The world’s most successful raptor in modern times in terms of range and numbers happens to be a Kite: the opportunistic Black Kite (Milvus migrans) which preys and scavenges around human habitations across most of the Old World, this and the congeneric Red Kite (M. milvus) famously scavenging the battlefields of yore.
Our White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) has been considered conspecific at times with the Black-shouldered Kite (E. caeruleus) of Europe, Africa and Asia. The four species of Kites in this genus form a group of very similar rodent specialists that collectively occupy most of the tropical and semitropical grasslands of the world, all hunting from a distinctive hovering flight over open country. In Texas, the White-tailed Kite breeds regularly in the Rio Grande Valley and much of the Coastal Plain. Like the Black-shouldered, the White-tailed Kite is among the few species of raptors known to occasionally raise a second brood in a season.
The Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) is a graceful relative of the Elanus kites unique to the New World. A superb aerialist, it feeds primarily over the forest canopy, plucking reptiles, insects, young birds and even entire birds’ nests from the treetops. Migratory populations of this species formerly bred over much of the eastern United States. Habitat destruction and persecution have both taken their toll, such that most of the remaining US population of approximately 5,000 kites breed in Florida.
The Hook-billed Kite (Chondroheirax uncinatus) is a tropical woodland species that occurs sporadically as far north as the Rio Grande Valley. This kite appears to be related to the odd Honey Buzzards of the Old World (Pernis sp.) that engage in the decidedly un-raptorlike habit of excavating the nests of social wasps and bees to devour the larvae. The Hook-billed Kite is likewise a prey specialist, clambering like a parrot amid the branches in search of tree snails.
The Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippienisis) is our local species most closely allied to the Black and Red Kites of Europe. Unlike those birds however, this dainty and graceful species feeds largely upon insects caught in flight. Although also much reduced in range, this species has fared somewhat better than has the Swallow-tailed Kite and still nests in loose colonies from eastern New Mexico across to North Carolina, with the greatest concentrations occurring in the Texas High Plains and western Oklahoma. Large flocks of these kites pass through our local area twice annually on their migratory journeys to and from southern South America.
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