Black-winged kite (Elanus caeruleus)
|Size||Length: 33 cm (2)|
Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (2).
The black-winged kite is a striking, falcon-like bird of prey with an incredibly extensive range (3) (4). This species has a pure white head and breast starkly contrasted by deep-set, ruby-red eyes surrounded by black patches (5) (6). The crown, back of the neck and upperparts are grey, with the exception of a black patch on the upper edges of the wings, from which this species derives its name (6). The juvenile has similar colour patterning, but is browner on the upperparts, with dusky streaks on the crown and a yellowish-brown tinged breast and head (4). Generally silent, this species will make a weak weeet-weeet-weeet call when agitated (6).
The black-winged kite’s enormous range encompasses almost all of sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal across to Ethiopia and down to South Africa, as well as coastal regions of north-eastern Africa. It also inhabits much of India and Sri Lanka, with its range extending east through Bangladesh and south-west China to south-east Asia, from Myanmar to Vietnam and south to Peninsular Malaysia. Many parts of Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea are also occupied by this species, and it has even expanded into Spain, Portugal and south-west France (3) (4).
Generally, the black-winged kite prefers open areas such as savanna, grassland and even rocky desert. It will, however, tolerate forest edge habitats and woodland clearings. It can be found from sea-level to elevations as high as 3,000 metres in Africa (4).
The black-winged kite is frequently seen alone or in pairs, perched on bare tree branches, posts and telephone wires where it constantly scans the ground for prey whilst repeatedly flicking its tail up and down (7). Mainly active in the morning and at dusk, during hunting the black-winged kite displays exceptional flying abilities. From its perch, this species swoops rapidly down upon its prey snatching it up in its talons. At other times, it hovers 30 to 40 metres above its prey, noiselessly descending downwards in small swoops, before plunging perpendicularly towards the ground with wings raised and feet outstretched. The black-winged kite has a broad diet, mainly consisting of small grassland rodents, but it will also take birds, lizards, snakes and frogs from the ground, and will catch bats and large insects while in flight (4).
In the northern parts of its range the black-winged kite is mainly nomadic, whereas in the tropical southern parts it tends to remain in a single location throughout the year. The breeding season varies according to location, with northern populations breeding from late February to early August, while tropical and sub-tropical populations may breed all year round, but generally peak towards the end of the rainy season. Unusually for a bird of prey, when food is abundant some populations may produce two or more broods in a single year (4). Courtship consists of chasing and mutual soaring, with occasional cartwheeling, in which the birds face each other, gripping talons, and spiral downwards for a short distance (4) (7). Once a breeding pair has been established, they work together to build a small, flat nest from twigs (4) (7). The female then lays a clutch of three to five eggs, which are incubated for around 26 days, while the male brings food. Generally the young are ready to fly at around 30 to 35 days after hatching, but still frequently return to the nest and continue to receive food from the parent birds (7).
Currently the black-winged kite’s global population is believed to be somewhere between 1 and 10 million individuals and does not appear to be suffering any significant decline (3). Nevertheless, in certain parts of its range, such as north-east Africa and Java, there have been significant local population decreases. This seems to be mainly due to expansion of human development and the use of rodent poisons (4).
There are currently no conservation measures in place for this species (3).
To learn more about bird of prey conservation visit:
- The Hawk Conservancy Trust:
- The Peregrine Fund:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
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- Nomadic: a species which roams irregularly from place to place in search of food and water, without returning to a fixed location.
IUCN Red List (June, 2008)
- Sinclair, I. (1994) Field Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
BirdLife International (December, 2008)
- Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Prey of the World. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
- Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (2001) A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
- Newman, K. (2002) Newman's Birds of Southern Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
The Hawk Conservancy Trust (December, 2008)