Black-shouldered kite (Elanus axillaris)

Also known as: Australian black-shouldered kite, black-winged kite
Synonyms: Circus axillaris, Elanus melanopterus, Elanus notatus, Falco axillaris
GenusElanus (1)
SizeLength: 33 - 37 cm (2)
Wingspan: 82 - 94 cm (2)
Male weight: 181 - 300 g (3)
Female weight: 270 - 340 g (3)
Top facts

The black-shouldered kite is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1), and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

A small, falcon-like kite (3), the black-shouldered kite (Elanus axillaris) is named for the large jet-black marking that runs from its shoulders and across part of its wing (3) (4) (5) (6). At rest, this species sits low on its short legs (2), and its pointed wing-tips reach beyond the tip of the notched tail (2) (3).

The head and underparts of the black-shouldered kite are pure white (2) (3) (5) (6), and the face is accentuated by red eyes (2) (3). A black patch in front of each eye extends into a thin line above and behind the eyes, forming ‘eyebrows’ (2) (3). The black-shouldered kite has a black bill (5), and the cere is yellow to horn in colour (2) (3) (5).

The black-shouldered kite’s back and the upper surface of its wings are grey (2) (3) (5) (6), with the primary feathers being darker (2) (3). When the bird is in flight, a black patch can be seen on the underside of each wing, towards the base of the wing feathers (2) (3) (5) (6). The tail is greyish-white (5) (6), and the legs and feet are yellow (2) (3) (5).

Male and female black-shouldered kites are similar in appearance (5), but young individuals can be distinguished by a streaked, rusty-brown head, back and breast, mottled grey wings with darker shoulders, and white-tipped feathers on the upperparts (2). The wing-tips of a young black-shouldered kite are browner than those of the adult (3), and the young bird has brown eyes (2) (3).

Usually a silent species, the black-shouldered kite tends to be more vocal during the breeding season, although even then the persistent calls are weak (3). The main call of this species is a high whistle, described as chee-chee-chee or chip-chip-chip (3), and it also commonly makes a harsh wheezing sound (2).

Endemic to Australia (2), the black-shouldered kite is a common species (7) which is found throughout the country. Its range includes Tasmania, although the species is less common there than in other parts of Australia, and it may simply be a vagrant to the island (2) (7) (8). The black-shouldered kite is also less common in the drier parts of northern Australia (7).

The black-shouldered kite occurs in open woodland, grassland and farmland, particularly in areas with scattered trees (2) (3) (8). This species can also be found on coastal sand dunes, particularly in the south and west of its range, and it has been reported along tree-lined watercourses and even on urban waste ground (3).

The black-shouldered kite tends to prefer areas where the ground cover vegetation is between 30 and 150 centimetres in height, and this species can be found up to elevations of 1,500 metres (3).

Generally seen singly or in pairs (3) (9), the black-shouldered kite is occasionally gregarious (2) (3), forming small family groups and roosting communally (3). This small bird of prey is active by day and at dusk (2) (3), being seen most frequently in the early morning or in the evening (9).

The black-shouldered kite can often be observed sitting on poles, wires or the topmost branches of dead trees (2) (5) (9). After landing on its perch, this species is known to flick its tail up and down (2) (3), possibly as a territorial demonstration (3). In flight, the black-shouldered kite glides on raised wings (2), hovering in search of prey with rapid, shallow beats and lowered legs (2) (3). It also sometimes hunts from a perch (2).

The black-shouldered kite feeds mainly on small mammals, particularly house mice (2) (3) (9), and large insects such as grasshoppers (2) (3) (5) (6) (9). This species also takes small birds (2) (3) and reptiles (2) (3) (5) (6) (9). After dropping onto its victim on the ground feet first (2) (3) (9) or hawking after insects in the air (5), the black-shouldered kite eats its prey in flight or carries it to a perch (3).

Populations of the black-shouldered kite generally breed between June and October in the east of the species’ range, and populations in the west breed from November to January. When food availability is high, the black-shouldered kite may breed at any time of year and sometimes produces two broods in the same season (3).

Aerial displays are performed during the breeding season, and the black-shouldered kite tends to produce a lot of weak calls during this time. In one particularly dramatic type of display, one of the birds will dive towards its mate, which rolls over and presents its claws, and the pair may then grapple and cartwheel in mid-air (3).

The black-shouldered kite’s nest is usually built in the fork of a large tree, between 4 and 35 metres above the ground. The nest itself is a flat platform of thin twigs lined with green leaves, and measures 27 to 45 centimetres across, and between 10 and 15 centimetres deep. A clutch of two to five eggs is laid, although three or four is most common. Black-shouldered kite eggs are incubated for 29 to 34 days, and the chicks fledge the nest 33 to 38 days later, although they remain dependent upon the adults for up to a month more (3).

There are currently no known threats to the black-shouldered kite.

The black-shouldered kite is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning that trade in this bird of prey should be strictly controlled and monitored (4). In addition, it is thought that the expansion of open cropland and irrigated farmland since the 1950s may have contributed to an increase in the population of this species in parts of south-eastern Australia (9).

Find out more about the black-shouldered kite and other birds of Barrow Island:

Learn more about bird conservation in Australia:

Find out more about conservation in Australia:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2013)
  2. Debus, S. (2012) Birds of Prey of Australia: A Field Guide. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  3. Christie, D.A. and Ferguson-Lees, J. (2010) Raptors of the World. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  4. CITES (June, 2013)
  5. Gould, J. (1865) Handbook to the Birds of Australia. Volume 1. John Gould, London.
  6. Leach, J.A. (2005) An Australian Bird Book: A Complete Guide to the Identification of Australian Birds. Kessinger Publishing, Montana, U.S.
  7. Thomas, R., Thomas, S., Andrew, D. and McBride, A. (2011) The Complete Guide to Finding the Birds of Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  8. Sibley, C.G. and Monroe Jr, B. (1990) Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale University Press, Connecticut.
  9. Tzaros, C. (2005) Wildlife of the Box-Ironbark Country. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.