I had the opportunity to see two wonderful and very different raptors recently, right in my own neighborhood. One day apart, I was able to see a Red-tailed Hawk and a Swallow-tailed Kite.
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Though the Red-tailed Hawk may be the most common hawk in the United States, they are not that common in SW Florida. As a matter of fact, before this, I can only recall seeing them perhaps once per year atop the tallest tree in the area. Florida is listed as having a year-round population, but they are less likely to be seen in developed areas. They often prefer open fields or light forests. These large hawks prey on small mammals, such as rats, rabbits, and squirrels. Depending on food availibilty, they may also prey on snakes, flocking birds, and fresh carrion. Despite their size, they are not commonly accused of dog or cat consumption.
Identification of this specie may be confusing, because, like many hawks, there can be great variation in plumage colors. Beyond the standard markings, there is a light morph, dark morph and even a rufus morph, with possible leucistic (white) individuals being not completely uncommon. The female outsizes the male by a few inches.
Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus)
The Swallow-tailed Kite is one of my all-time favorite birds. I’ve never seen a more graceful bird in the air. They are so good at gliding and playing with air currents that they only flap infrequently. The real power in their flight abilities comes from their distinctive tails. They are constantly adjusting their tail position, sometimes rotating it nearly ninety degrees. This gives them the ability to make remarkably tight circles and sharp turns, all with seemingly little effort. It makes sense that a very large part of their diet comes from flying insects.
In the United States, the Swallow-tailed Kite’s range once covered at least sixteen states (possibly up to twenty-one), but now only covers parts of seven southeastern states. As these birds migrate to South America for the winter, Florida is part of their summer range.
The white and black plumage markings are consistent throughout the specie and both genders are within the same size range, making this a remarkably easy bird to identify.
Preston, C. R. and R. D. Beane. 2009. Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/052
Avian Research and Conservation Institute, 411 N.E. 7th Street, Gainesville, FL 32601, (352) 672-0987
Meyer, Kenneth D. 1995. Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/138