Florida’s Official Bird of Awesomeness

I didn’t go birding this weekend (at least not as an “official” activity with birding specifically in mind), but seeing some Swallow-tailed Kites on several occasions, it got me to thinking about these most graceful of flyers.

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Eating on the wing. Copyright David Oakley.

When we moved to Florida over a decade ago, I noticed these birds during our first spring and summer. By our second spring, they were a common sight almost daily on the stretch from our apartment out to the interstate (which was much less developed than now). In 2004, we got a “double whammy” from hurricanes Frances and Jeannie and along with other formerly common species (most notably the Brown Pelicans), the local population of Swallow-tailed Kites all but vanished from our skies.

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The Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail uses the Swallow-tailed Kite as it’s “official” bird. Why not the State of Florida?

Slowly, since then, there are more and more of them overhead, and this year they are about as numerous as they were in 2003. I have seen family groups soaring together a few times and they are a comforting and familiar sight almost every day. [Note: other birds, like the Brown Pelican have also recovered nicely since 2004]

Florida and closely adjoining areas of the US are the northern limits of this species’ normal breeding range, and due to their aerial skill and prey choice (lizards, insects, frogs) have managed to adapt to human incursions on their territory. I have seen them soaring over The Villages, Kissimmee, Venice Beach, Lake Wales, Melbourne and Key West.

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Florida is the USA’s Swallow-tailed Kite Central.

These kites are migratory and leave for warmer climates in Central and South America each autumn. They return around March and begin breeding through the spring and summer.

Some US states list them as endangered or threatened, but I believe this is in part due to these states lying at the extreme of this species’ range. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes that Swallow-tailed Kites have a very large global range and its population trend is increasing. This does not mean that these kites are unaffected by environmental degradation or habitat loss, but compared to some other animals and birds of prey in particular, they seem to be holding their own, at least globally.

Given their striking appearance, grace and population concentration in Florida, it’s strange to think that this bird is not the official State Bird. That honor belongs to the Northern Mockingbird. Although it’s insignificant to many other social, legislative and ethical problems today, I would be glad to see an initiative to see Swallow-tailed Kites as the State Bird of Florida.

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