• Adult
  • Adult in flight. Note: black shoulders and black wrist spot.
  • Juvenile in flight. Note: buffy wash in feathers.

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White-tailed Kite

Elanus leucurus
The hawks, eagles, falcons, and allies make up a group known as the diurnal raptors, because they are active during the day. Members of this group typically use their acute vision to catch live vertebrate prey with their strong feet and toes. They vary from medium-sized to large birds and most have an upright posture and strong, short, hooked bills. The New World vultures (not closely related to the Old World vultures) were once classified with the herons and allies, but they have provisionally been grouped with the diurnal raptors on the basis of recent genetic studies. Members of the order Falconiformes in Washington fall into three families:
Although this is a large and varied family, its members share many similarities. They are all diurnal hunters and, for the most part, use their sharp vision to locate prey, which they capture with strong feet. Many members of this family are migratory, and they often concentrate along major migration corridors. These migration corridors often follow ridgelines, where the birds ride updrafts to facilitate their journey south. Like other birds of prey, female hawks et al. are larger than males. Most members of this family are monogamous, and many form long-term pair bonds. Females generally incubate the eggs and brood the young, with some assistance from the male. The male brings food to the nest. Once the young no longer need to be brooded, both parents bring food. Extended parental care is the norm for this group, as it takes a relatively long time for young to learn to hunt.
Uncommon resident in southwest.

    General Description

    The White-tailed Kite was formerly known as the Black-shouldered Kite, until the species was split, with the North American birds taking the new moniker. The White-tailed Kite is a distinctive bird, especially when hovering over open fields. The kite's upperparts are mostly gray, with bold black shoulders. Its tail is white above and below, with a small stripe of light gray down the center of the upper side of the tail. From below, the kite's body appears to be white, with black patches at the wrists and gray-black primaries. Its head is mostly white with red eyes. Juveniles are similar, but have a buffy wash over much of their bodies. The kite's wings are long and pointed, often held in a dihedral during soaring.


    White-tailed Kites are found in open grasslands with scattered trees for nesting and perching. They are often found along tree-lined river valleys with adjacent open areas, but are not usually found in forests or in clearcuts within forests.


    Outside of the breeding season, they roost communally, sometimes in groups of more than 100 birds. Density in Washington is not this high, and such large congregations are not seen here. Small groups of around five birds are more common. While hunting, kites often hover over open fields.


    Small mammals, especially voles, make up the majority of the White-tailed Kite's diet.


    White-tailed Kites form a monogamous pair in December, and the pair stays together year round. Nest building starts in January. They nest in the top of a tree, usually 20-50 feet off the ground. Both members of the pair help build the nest, which is made of twigs and lined with grass, weeds, or leaves. The male brings food to the female as she incubates 4 eggs for 30-32 days. Once the eggs hatch, the male continues to bring food to the brooding female, who feeds it to the young. The young begin to fly at 30-35 days, but don't start catching their own prey for at least another month. The pair may raise a second brood.

    Migration Status

    While White-tailed Kites have no known regular migration, they do wander widely, especially when prey is scarce.

    Conservation Status

    During the early 20th Century, the White-tailed Kite had a very restricted range and was threatened with extinction. The population has been growing and expanding its range since then, and has now spread from Texas and California to Oregon, Washington, and other spots throughout the United States. This range expansion is irruptive; they settle in large areas in short periods of time, and seem to follow vole population cycles. There is a sizeable population near the southern coast of Oregon, and birds continue to become more common in Washington. The first known breeding record in Washington is at the Raymond Airport (Pacific County) in 1988.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    This rare breeder is found year round in wet meadows and tree-lined stream corridors in southwestern Washington, and increasingly farther north in western Washington. In Washington, they are found in higher densities during winter, and thus, seemingly disperse from southern breeding areas. They have nested along the Willapa River and in the Chinook Valley (both Pacific County), by Hanaford Creek and the Chehalis River (both Lewis County). In Wahkiakum County, they have nested along the Skamokawa, Naselle, Deep, and Grays Rivers. They have also bred in a few places in Thurston County. Rarely, non-breeding birds are seen in a few areas of western Washington, as far north as Anacortes (Skagit County).

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest CoastUUUURRUUUUUU
    Puget TroughUUUURRRUUUUU
    North Cascades
    West Cascades
    East Cascades
    Canadian Rockies
    Blue Mountains
    Columbia Plateau

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern