The black-winged kite (Elanus caeruleus), sometimes also referred to as the black-shouldered kite, is a small bird of prey from the Accipitridae family, known for hovering over open grasslands.
One of the most distinctive features of this bird is the black plumage on the tip of the wings, which gives it its name.
But what do these birds look like? What do they eat, and where do they live, and how do they behave? We can answer all of these questions, and more, by covering all of the basic information about this small bird of prey.
Ready? Then let’s get right into it!
Appearance – What does the Black-winged Kite look like?
The black-winged kite is small in size, with adults measuring around 14 inches (35.5 cm) in length, with a wingspan of 31 to 39 inches (78.8 cm to 99 cm). They are predominantly grey or white in color, with black feathers at the tip of the wins, shoulders, and eyes.
When they are perched, the falcon-like wings extend beyond the tail, a further indication of their large dimensions. When in flight, the tail is completely visible, and square in shape, instead of being forked like other types of kites.
They have big forward-facing eyes, with many similarities to owls, only of course, black-winged kites are diurnal.
Male Vs Female – How to tell the difference
There is very little difference between male and female black-winged kites. In fact, their plumage is practically identical, and they are almost impossible to differentiate out in the field. A closer inspection is needed in order to tell the sexes apart.
However, female black-winged kites tend to be slightly heavier and bigger than their male counterparts, so this is something to look out for!
Are Black-Winged Kites aggressive?
Black-winged kites are not known for being especially aggressive. They will mostly keep to themselves, and they will not interact much with other animals, or with humans.
However, if you come into close contact with a black-winged kite, within their territory, during the breeding season, then they might become defensive and aggressive.
What adaptations do they have?
The black-winged kite is completely adapted to its savannah and grassland habitat and environment, which is why they share so many physical traits with owls. The square tail helps them maneuver during flight while staying closer to the ground.
The large forward-facing eyes allow them to have excellent eyesight, specially designed to help them track and follow small rodents, which is their primary source of food.
Breeding and reproduction of the black-winged kite
During the breeding season, black-winged kites engage in a ritual of aerial courtship, involving single and mutual high flight, in circular patterns. Usually, the male will fly around with the wings held up high, rapidly fluttering (flutter-flight).
The males will then dive at the females, feeding them mid-flight. The females grab the food from the males, from talon to talon, while flipping upside-down.
They then usually tumble downwards, grappling each other as they fall, and releasing right before they hit the floor to land safely. It’s quite an impressive dance!
They form monogamous pairs, and some will breed up to twice during the breeding season, which goes from August to January. The female is in charge of building the nest, although the male can help collect materials.
Usually, the nest will be built in the canopy of a tree, out in the open country, slightly elevated above the ground. Sometimes, however, they will simply use the abandoned nest of another bird!
Three or four eggs are usually laid, then incubated by the female for 30 days. Throughout this time the male is in charge of bringing food and protecting the territory.
Once the chicks have hatched, the nestling period lasts around 36 days, and both parents take turns feeding them. After around 5 weeks, the chicks are ready to leave the nest, and they will disperse widely, sometimes going as far as 1000km (621 miles) away from the nest!
What does the call of a black-winged kite sound like?
Black-winged kites are most often silent, so it’s not that easy to hear what they sound like. During the breeding season, however, is when they will call to each other, through weak but persistent whistles.
A short high whistle is usually the main call of communication between males and females, but there are variations on the whistle.
What does the black-winged kite eat?
The black-winged kite eats many different small rodents found in grasslands, mainly the house mouse. It also eats grasshoppers, small reptiles, smaller birds, and sometimes even rabbits!
But above all, mice are their absolute favorite and their main source of food.
Habitat – Where does the black-winged kite live?
Black-winged kites can be either sedentary or nomadic, but they will most often live in large groups. Their habitat is mainly open grasslands or valleys, as well as savannahs. They also like pastures, vegetable crops, and vineyards.
They can sometimes also inhabit urban areas, and if this is the case they will favor wastelands, grassy roadside verges, golf courses, and similar.
Nesting habits of the black-winged kite
During the breeding season, once a male and female have paired up, they will begin to build the nest.
This will be done under the canopy of a tree or similar, slightly above the ground, out in the open space. However, sometimes they will simply reuse an old abandoned nest from another bird.
Both males and females will collect materials to build the nest, but it will be solely built by the female. Then, the female will nest while the male fetches food and protects the territory.
Lifespan – How long does the black-winged kite live for?
On average, black-winged kites will usually live up to around 6 years.
What predators does the black-winged kite have?
Black-winged kites don’t really have any major predators. Instead, their major threat is their habitat not being apt.
For example, areas with high numbers of sheep and rabbits cause the black-winged kite population to decline, as these animals can cause the soil to become more compact, reducing the number of mice, which is the main source of food for the black-winged kite.
What are the feathers of a black-winged kite like?
Black-winged kite feathers are predominantly grey or white, except for the areas of the body that are characteristically black, such as the shoulders, the tips of the wings, and around the eyes.
However, young black-winged kites might have brown to reddish feathers on the chest for some time.
Do black-winged kites migrate?
Black-winged kites can be nomadic or sedentary, depending on their environment and how stable the habitat they are in is. However, they do not migrate in the way that other species of kites do.
This means that you will be able to see them all year round, without them disappearing to other locations for any period of time.
Conservation status of the black-winged kite
At the moment, black-winged kites are classed as being LC (of least concern), as their numbers are steadily increasing and they are not in any danger whatsoever.
In fact, according to the IUCN Red List, the total population of black-winged kites is more than 100,000 individuals!
Fun facts about the black-winged kite
Here are some fun facts about the black-winged kite that are worth knowing about:
The black-winged kite is most often referred to as the black-shouldered kite. This is due to the black plumage around the “shoulder” area!
The black-winged kite is very often confused with the letter-winged kite, as they are very similar and both are majorly found in Australia.
Black-winged kites develop a favorite feeding perch spot, and this can be easily found because they will accumulate what’s left of the food on the ground underneath!
Black-winged kites spiral into the wind in the same way a kestrel does. They soar upwards with v-shaped up-curved wings, and their tail fanned. Their flight is also described as winnowing, and they are incredibly graceful in their movements!
In the Southwestern region of Australia, the black-winged kite is one of the most common birds of prey. This is thanks to the large populations of mice, which come from the grain farms in the area.
Mice make up 90% of the diet of a black-winged kite. They really are their favorite food of all time! Parents will even feed mice to the chicks during the nesting period.
Black-winged kites only ever make a noise during the breeding season. The rest of the time they are mostly silent, so they’re really hard to hear!