This summer, as you are hiking and biking around the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area, keep your eyes peeled to the sky, for you might just catch a glimpse of one of our most majestic raptors, the White-tailed Kite. These non-migratory birds, which inspired the name for the popular childhood toy, can be found hovering in the blue from Oregon to South America.
The White-tailed Kite has distinctive, white plumage that spans the length of its body down to the tip of its tail, which contrasts beautifully against their charcoal grey and black wings. The Kite is smaller in size than many raptors, and has a much longer tail and pointed wings. These features help the high-flying birds become suspended above the ground, on warm air currents. Typically a kite will remain aloft, sometimes reaching heights of up to 80 feet, while using their coppery, red eyes to spot their victims below. Kites swoop down out of the sky, and descend upon small animals and rodents, as well as the occasional insect, lizard or bird.
When it comes time to nest, the White-tailed Kite often settles high up in the foliage of large trees. They gather materials such as grass, hay, twigs and leaves to construct their shelter where they will eventually lay their eggs. While mating these birds will form monogamous pairs for most of the year, however, during the non-mating season these birds become quite social and nest in “roosts” of up to 100 birds!
White-tailed Kites have not always been abundant here in California. In the early 1900s they were destined for extinction due to habitat destruction, sport hunting and egg gathering. Surprisingly, as California’s agriculture industry grew, so did the Kites’ dwindling population. The rise in agricultural production created more food for the Kites in the form of pests and rodents allowing the birds to thrive once more. Their traditional habitats— savannahs, wetlands and oak woodlands— are still threatened by urbanization, however, the White-tailed Kite has proved resourceful at blending into our cities and neighborhoods, using trees in parks and greenways to nest. So the next time you’re out hiking in a park or open field, look out for these awesome creatures with whom we share our watershed!