Kites are small birds of prey that are known for their amazing ability to fly into the wind and hover, which is known as kiting. They spend a lot of time soaring looking for prey, so looking up is a great way to spot them, even on car journeys.
There are 3 species of kites in California that have been spotted and they are the White-tailed Kite, Mississippi Kite, and the Swallow-tailed Kite. However, Mississippi Kites and Swallow-tailed Kites are accidental species here.
Kites can be found worldwide but are more in warmer regions. In North America, they are found mostly in southern states.
3 Types Of Kites California
1. White-tailed Kite
White-tailed Kites do not migrate and are residents of California all year. They are recorded in 3% of summer checklists and 6% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state.
White-tailed kites are small graceful raptors with white faces and underparts and dark gray wings.
White-tailed kites are small and narrow with white faces and underparts. Adults look similar. Their eyes are red and their hooked bills are black. Their wings are gray with black patches on their shoulders. Underneath, their wings are white and gray. Their tails are short, square, and pale gray.
Juveniles have a reddish-brown coloring on their crowns and breasts, but they have similar white faces, dark shoulders, and gray wings as the adults.
- Elanus leucurus
- Length: 15 – 17 in (38 – 43 cm)
- Weight: 12 oz (340 g)
- Wingspan: 40 – 42 in (102 – 107 cm)
White-tailed Kites are resident all year in southern US states and along the Pacific Coast.
You can find White-tailed Kites within a limited range in the United States. They are usually in open savannahs, desert grasslands, cultivated fields, and partially cleared lands.
During the non-breeding season, it’s easy to spot them since they roost in groups communally on trees and tall shrubs at the edge of grasslands.
White-tailed Kites’ usual meal involves rodents, like voles, field mice, and gophers, and may include small birds, snakes, lizards, and frogs. They will also catch flying insects like grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles, as they’re flying.
When hunting, White-tailed Kites are noted for their hovering motion above ground before they swoop in to grab their prey with their talons.
White-tailed Kite Call:
Nests of White-tailed Kites are usually made of thin twigs and built high atop tall trees, about ten to one hundred sixty feet tall. The male brings the twigs, grass, hay, and leaves and the female builds them.
She will then lay about four eggs and incubates them for a month. She is fed by the male during this time.
Fun Fact: White-tailed Kites hover in one position while hunting by facing into the wind and fluttering their wings – this is known as ‘kiting’.
2. Mississippi Kite
Mississippi Kites are considered rare or accidental species in California but you might spot some along the southern coast of the state during the breeding season from June to July.
Mississippi Kites are small and slender birds of prey. They have light gray heads, red eyes with a dark eye patch in front, and small, strongly hooked dark bills.
Their underparts are light gray while their upperparts are dark gray. Their primary wings are dark gray, their secondary wings are white, and wingtips are black. They have long, dark tails and red legs and feet.
Male and female Mississippi Kites look similar except that males are slightly paler than females. Juveniles have heavily streaked brown and white bellies, heavily mottled wings, and long, banded tails.
- Ictinia mississippiensis
- Length: 13 – 17 in (33 – 43 cm)
- Weight: 12.6 oz (357 g)
- Wingspan: 34 – 37 in (86 – 94 cm)
Mississippi Kites breed in the southern and eastern United States and migrate to South America, mainly Argentina, Paraguay, Uraguay, and southern Brazil.
You can find Mississippi Kites in small woodland forests in the prairies, dense old-growth hardwood forests, and more recently, in tree-lined areas like windbreaks, shelterbelts, city parks, golf courses, and other urban areas.
It is best to keep your sights above the trees for they love to sail on the wind and float in the air. In cityscapes, they’re likely to perch on tall buildings.
Most of the time, Mississippi Kites forage from the air and catch their prey and eat them while in flight. They capture medium to large-sized insects like grasshoppers, beetles, cicadas, and dragonflies.
They also hunt from their perch in trees and snag snakes, turtles, small birds, lizards, frogs, and fish. Sometimes, they hang around bison, horses, deer, and people and snatch whatever insects are flushed out by their activities.
Mississippi Kite Call:
Nests of Mississippi Kites are built on most types of trees. They can use tree branches that are a few feet off the ground or even as high as 115 feet up. They can build them on their own using twigs, leaves, and moss or they can re-use old, abandoned nests by other birds or even squirrels.
Both adults build the nest together and the female lays one to three eggs in it. They both take the time to incubate the eggs for about twenty-nine to thirty-two days. Mississippi Kites usually nest in colonies and will sometimes accept help with the nest from a one-year-old bird.
They’re also very protective of their nest and will attack anyone, people and animals alike when they get too close.
Fun Fact: Mississippi Kites are more successful at producing offspring in their urban habitats because there are fewer predators there than in forests and woodlands.
3. Swallow-tailed Kite
Swallow-tailed Kites are considered accidental species in California and they have only been spotted here a few times, the last sighting was around San Diego in 2016.
Swallow-tailed Kites are large but slender birds of prey that are most often seen hovering in the skies with their distinctive forked tail.
Males and females look similar and have white heads and underparts and black bills, flight feathers, tails, and feet. Their underwings are both black and white. Their long, forked tails resemble a swallow’s hence the name “swallow-tailed”.
Juveniles are paler in comparison and their tails are not that deeply forked.
- Elanoides forficatus
- Length: 19 – 25 in (48 – 64 cm)
- Weight: 15.6 oz (442 g)
- Wingspan: 45 – 50 in (114 – 127 cm)
Swallow-tailed Kites are predominantly resident in South America but they breed around the Gulf Coast of the United States.
You can find Swallow-tailed Kites in swamps, marshes, and humid, lowland forests. When nesting, look for them in tall trees around open areas with an abundance of small prey to feed their young.
Swallow-tailed Kites almost always spend their time in flight so it’s best to look skyward when looking for them. Also, summer is the best time to see them since they migrate to South America for the winter.
Swallow-tailed Kites are graceful, acrobatic hunters and they usually catch their prey mid-air.
Insects like dragonflies, cicadas, wasps, bees, crickets, and beetles are their primary food. They also eat small snakes, frogs, lizards, and small birds when flying in from the treetops.
They eat their prey immediately during their flight. When catching prey to feed their mates and their young, they will usually carry the food item with their feet and then transfer it to their beaks to give to the female.
Swallow-tailed Kite Call:
Nests of Swallow-tailed Kites are often concealed by foliage in the tallest of trees in the forest. Both adults build a new nest each year and they bring materials like sticks, lichens, and moss to the nesting site. Other times, they may repair and reuse their old nesting site.
The female lays one to three eggs and incubation takes twenty-four to twenty-eight days. Not all young survive since sometimes the eldest chick will kill the younger, smaller sibling, particularly if there’s not enough food.
Fun Fact: Swallow-tailed Kites are famous for their aerial acrobatics and they twist, turn, roll and dive whilst flicking their forked tail in pursuit of prey.