Skip to main content

White-tailed Kite Life History



White-tailed Kites are common in savannas, open woodlands, marshes, desert grasslands, partially cleared lands, and cultivated fields. They tend to avoid heavily grazed areas.

Back to top



The White-tailed Kite eats mainly small mammals, but it also eats birds, lizards, and insects on rare occasions. It hunts by facing into the wind and hovering up to 80 feet above the ground while it scans the ground for movement. It dives down to grab prey, feet down and wings held up.

Back to top


Nest Placement


White-tailed Kites typically nest in the upper third of trees that may be 10–160 feet tall. These can be open-country trees growing in isolation, or at the edge of or within a forest. Both sexes help choose the nest site; the female may build the nest herself or both sexes may participate.

Nest Description

The nest is a shallow bowl made mostly of small twigs and lined with grass, hay, or leaves. Nests measure about 21 inches across, with a cup that's about 7 inches across and 4 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:4 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.5-1.8 in (3.8-4.5 cm)
Egg Width:1.2-1.3 in (3-3.3 cm)
Incubation Period:30-32 days
Nestling Period:35-38 days
Egg Description:

White overall, spotted with dark brown.

Condition at Hatching:

Helpless and covered in tan or yellowish down.

Back to top



While hunting, the White-tailed Kite hovers up to 80 feet off the ground and then drops straight down onto prey items with talons out. They can hold a stationary position in midair by facing into the wind and fluttering their wings, a behavior so characteristic of these birds it's called kiting. White-tailed Kites maintain territories, though they tend to tolerate nearby kites and are not as strongly territorial as other raptors. On rare occasions territory holders or an intruding kite might be met and challenged in flight where the two birds lock talons and tumble towards the ground, pulling apart just before the ground. White-tailed Kites perform ritualized courtship displays in which a male offers prey to a female prior to egg laying. In an often spectacular aerial exchange, the female flies up to meet the male, turns upside-down, and grasps the prey. Pairs stay together during the breeding season, but may or may not pair up in successive seasons.

Back to top


Low Concern

White-tailed Kites are relatively common, but their populations declined by 36% between 1970 and 2014, according to Partners in Flight. The estimated global breeding population is 2 million. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means it is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. In the early 1900s White-tailed Kite populations dropped significantly due to habitat loss, shooting, and egg collection. Since then, populations have rebounded somewhat, although long-term trends suggest continued declines. Urban and suburban development can reduce the number of nest sites as well as prey abundance. Modern farming techniques can also reduce vegetation that its prey use for cover. In a conservation effort in northern California, the California Department of Fish and Game set aside grazed pastures and allowed them to return to grassland; they now support about 10 times the number of raptors, including White-tailed Kites, as before the program began.

Back to top


Dunk, Jeffrey R. (1995). White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love (2016). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2016.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory, Laurel, MD, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Back to top

Learn more at Birds of the World