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Florida Guide > Miscellaneous

THE SNAIL KITE

The Florida snail kite feeds almost exclusively on apple snails and, in the United States, is found only in Florida. In times past the snail kites were found from southeast of Tallahassee right down to the Everglades. Wetland drainage and development has eliminated or altered its shallow freshwater foraging habitat. In 1967 the species was listed as endangered. Today, the population is considered to be stable, but extremely vulnerable to the stresses of habitat loss, prolonged droughts and anything that affects the availability of apple snails, its primary food.

Breeding time for Snail Kites is from December to August. This hawk on average lays three eggs. The eggs are incubated by both parents for 26 - 28 days. The young kites fledge at 6 - 7 weeks old. Snail Kites may have more than 1 clutch in a season and become sexually mature in less than a year.

The nest is bulky and built in a variety of wetland trees, shrubs and emergent vegetation. During the nesting season, the birds are usually found singly or in pairs. Other times during the year they gather together to roost in communal groups.

Vocally these kites are usually silent but do have a harsh cackling cry.

Generally, the species is somewhat nomadic, moving from wetland to wetland in search of snails. These birds can be seen in the marshes around Lakes Okeechobee, Tohopekaliga and Kissimmee. Other places where they can be regularly seen are at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and the water conservation areas of the Everglades.

These Kites are medium in size 36-40 cm (14-16 in) The males have a plumage of dark grey and the female and young immature birds are a brownish colour, with a streaked breast, cheek patch with a light eyebrow. The base of the tail has a distinctive white patch ending in a dark band with a narrow white edge. The females are slightly larger in size than the males. Adults have red legs – the juveniles have yellow legs.

When the Snail Kite goes “fishing” it flies low over the shallow freshwater marshes. On spotting a snail, it swoops down with its legs extended into the water then hovering grasps a snail with its talons. On landing or in flight it uses its thin hooked bill to pull the snail out of the shell.

They will also eat fresh water crabs, turtles, and small rodents if snails are not available.

This kite is one of the most specialized feeders of any bird of prey. This specialty restricts the bird’s range to marshy areas that contain specific types of snails.

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Page added on: 8 December 2008
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