Today (May 9) in honor of our heritage as a bird sanctuary, we celebrate World Migratory Bird Day and spotlight a magnificent migratory raptor – the Swallow-tailed Kite. WMBD is an awareness-raising campaign highlighting the need for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats. It aims to draw attention to the threats faced by migratory birds, their ecological importance, and the need for international cooperation to conserve them.
The Swallow-tailed Kite: a long and winding journey
By early March, Floridians with their eyes on the skies, are treated to an unforgettable experience: an amazing aerial show of Swallow-tailed Kites soaring overhead. This striking black and white bird has a deeply forked tail that allows it to steer, making sharp turns and twists. Swallow-tailed Kites, unlike snowbirds, spend their summers in Florida.
The Swallow-tailed Kite is a voracious consumer of insects helping to naturally control insect populations. Their flying ability allows the kite to catch all kinds of other prey including small animals, like frogs, anoles and snakes.
By early July, they begin to gather in large roosts for the migration back to their wintering grounds in South America.
What is known about the ecology of the Swallow-tailed Kite is in large part due to the work of the Avian Research and Conservation Initiative (ARCI). Since 1996, scientists with the ARCI have used satellite telemetry to study the ecology of these birds including the 10,000-mile migration they make each year to the humid plains of Brazil and back to the lowlands of the southeast U.S.
Tracked by GPS transmitters, ARCI is able to follow individual birds on their journey, facing extraordinary risks including accidents, illnesses and storms. The information is critical to fill deep holes in our knowledge about a vulnerable species whose range in the United States contracted from 21 states to 7 in the space of just four decades and has not recovered since.
ARCI works to develop management techniques and policy recommendations for these at-risk birds that are key to the species survival.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made it illegal to shoot raptors and most other birds reducing this threat to the species. Today, the primary threat to Swallow-tailed Kites is habitat loss. Conservation geared toward habitat protection aims to safeguard the Florida population and gradually expand the small subpopulations scattered throughout the rest of the Southeastern coastal plain as well as reduce threats in its South American wintering grounds. The future of Swallow-tailed Kites depends on good science guiding our decisions.
Blog post was written by Tricia Martin, Director of Education. Photos provided by ARCI, Dave Peters and Sarah Lingwall.