Black-Shouldered Kite: The Ultimate Guide

The grace of the Australian Black-Shouldered Kite is one of the most immediately enchanting things about it. Gliding through the air with minimal movement, it looks majestic as it surveys the grounds of the Australian grasslands.

If you’re interested in learning about the Black-Shouldered Kite, then first you have to check you’ve got the right bird. Although the Australian kite is the official black-shouldered variety, they share the name with a few others.

But as an incredible bird with an interesting life, they’re definitely worth discovering.


The Black-Shouldered Kite is a smaller bird, with gray-white plumage and pronounced black markings. Across the back, this kite has a light gray coloring. The front is snow-white and downy, which extends up to the crown.

Above the eye is a comma shaped black marking, which extends toward the back of the head and frames the startling red eyes. Black patches on the outer edge of the wing look like shoulders when the kite is perched, leading to the name.

The Black-Shouldered Kite is roughly 14 inches tall (35 cm), with a wingspan of 31 to 39 inches (80-100 cm). They weigh 10 oz (280 g) on average, with the female usually being larger.

Male vs Female

There is very little to distinguish the male from the female Black-Shouldered Kite. The female is often the larger of the two. Other than that, they appear to be very similar.

Are They Aggressive?

The Black-Shouldered Kite isn’t a particularly aggressive bird, and will often live quite close to human settlements. In fact, humans and Black-Shouldered Kites can have a beneficial relationship with each other. Human settlements tend to result in an increase of rodents, which the Black-Shouldered Kite then eat.

However, a lack of food can cause aggression. When prey is sparse, the Black-Shouldered Kite becomes territorial. It engages in “tail flicking” behavior, where the tail is flicked up and down repeatedly. This display is thought to be territorial.

What Adaptations Do They Have?

Across Australia, the Black-Shouldered Kite is perfectly adapted for the way it lives. When flying, it spirals with the wind and soars with its wings stretched upwards in a “V” shape. Soft, steady wing beats with lots of gliding allows them to easily survey the open grassland, looking for prey.

The feet of the Black-Shouldered Kite have also adapted for the conditions. With 3 forward pointing toes, and 1 that points backwards, they’re able to grasp on to a branch from both sides. This allows them to balance on even the thinnest branches. Particularly useful when tree coverage is sparse.

But the greatest adaptation of the Black-Shouldered Kite is its diet. This kite feeds mostly on the house mouse, which was introduced to Australia by European settlers. The Black-Shouldered Kite quickly took to this new prey, and now it forms the bulk of their diet.

Breeding/Reproduction Behavior

The Black-Shouldered Kite forms a monogamous pair after the completion of an elaborate courtship display. The male and female will both circle around, high into the sky. The male may circle with rapid wing beats, known as “butterfly flight”.

They also engage in midair feeding. The male will dive towards the female with food in his talons, which she will take and eat. Throughout the entire courtship ritual, both birds make repeated noises.

Having formed a pair, they’re ready to breed. Breeding takes place between August and January.

The female will lay a clutch of 3 to 4 eggs, which she incubates and broods while the male brings food. Incubation happens for around 30 days, and then it takes 5 weeks for the young to be fully fledged. Shortly after leaving the nest, the juveniles are ready to hunt mice on their own.

In a good season, with plenty of food, a pair may breed successfully twice in the same season.

Their Calls/Sounds

Outside of breeding, the Black-Shouldered Kite is a quiet bird, with weak calls. It’s been observed making a clear, whistling sound when in flight or hovering.

The male and female Black-Shouldered Kite communicate non-stop during the courting process. The female will call to her young with a low croak.

What Do They Eat? (Diet)

The house mouse is the chosen food of the Black-Shouldered Kite. This forms roughly 90% of their diet, and the population increases greatly wherever the house mouse is to be found.

The mouse isn’t the only thing they eat, and a Black-Shouldered Kite can be seen feeding on rats, small reptiles, small birds, and insects such as grasshoppers. If feeling particularly hungry, the Black-Shouldered Kite might even eat a rabbit.

The Black-Shouldered Kite hunts methodically. It hovers in the air, scanning the ground with a watchful eye. When it’s found something to eat, it sweeps low, and grabs the animal with sharp claws. Food may then be eaten in flight, or when perched.

Hunting occurs in the early morning, or late afternoon. The Black-Shouldered Kite will generally hunt alone or in pairs. However, in places where the mouse population is particularly large, groups of up to 30 can come together.

Where Do They Live? (Habitat)

Open grasslands and valleys are the preferred habitat for the Black-Shouldered Kite, with the occasional clump of trees. They like a clear view of the ground, to spot any prey who might be moving past. 

As well as these grasslands, the Black-Shouldered Kite will often hunt near towns. They look for wasteland, sports fields, even golf courses – anywhere they have room to glide. Agricultural areas can also attract the Black-Shouldered Kite.

They forage over pastures, vineyards, and crop fields. Recently plowed areas are of a special interest, because the prey is more exposed.

The Black-Shouldered Kite is found all across mainland Australia, but particularly in the fertile regions around the southeast and southwest.

What Are Their Nesting Habits?

Building a nest is an important part of the breeding process for the Black-Shouldered Kite. Both parents work to collect the materials, although the female takes charge of the building itself. The nest is located high above the ground, often between 5 and 20 feet (1.5-6 m).

Nests are regularly built on trees, but artificial poles are also used. The nest is large, but roughly made from sticks. The inside is lined with green leaves and felted fur. It can take anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks to get a nest ready. Nests are often reused, and they’ll expand over the years.

Having laid a clutch of 3 or 4 eggs, the female does most of the incubating while the male hunts. Post-hatching, the female won’t leave the nest for 3 weeks, looking out for the vulnerable chicks.

The Black-Shouldered Kite usually nests alone, but if there is a lot of food around, they’ll nest communally. Having left the nest, the kite will often roost communally as well.

How Long Do They Live? (Lifespan)

The expected lifespan for the Black-Shouldered Kite is around 6 years in the wild. Having fledged at 5 weeks, they leave the nest not long after. Then, they’re hunting mice within a week of finding independence. Juveniles disperse widely once they’ve left the nest.

What Predators Do They Have?

There isn’t much that poses a threat to the Black-Shouldered Kite. The juveniles are at a higher risk due to their small size, but the elevated nests and watchful parents keep them safe.

What Are Their Feathers Like?

Across the back of the Black-Shouldered Kite are long gray feathers, with a sleek finish. These feathers are darker on the outer edges of the wings, giving the look of black shoulders. The feathers on the front of the body are quite different.

White and downy, they look almost fluffy.

What Does Their Poop Look Like?

The Black-Shouldered Kite poops pellets. These are often easy to find, because the kite can have a favorite perch. At the base of this perch there are lots of droppings.

Do They Migrate?

The Black-Shouldered Kite doesn’t migrate, but it can move around quite a bit. They can be nomadic birds, because they tend to follow the food source. When prey are low in their usual hunting grounds, the Black-Shouldered Kite will move on, looking for abundant food in other places.

Conservation Status?

Currently listed as “least concern” by the IUCN, the Black-Shouldered Kite is a rare bird of prey that’s actually benefited from a growth of the human population. When the Europeans came to Australia, they bought the house mouse with them.

This became the primary food source for the Black-Shouldered Kite. Farming also exposed new hunting grounds, where the kites quartering style of hunting can thrive.

Fun Facts

  • If you think you’ve seen a Black-Shouldered Kite, then you might want to check the exact placement of the markings. It can be confused with the Black-Winged Kite, or the Letter-Winged Kite.
  • Although the Australian Black-Shouldered Kite is the official bird for that name, the term “black-shouldered” has been used to describe a multitude of kites in the past. Both the Eurasian Black-Winged Kite and the American White-Tailed Kite were once referred to as black-shouldered.