White-tailed Kites Moving Out of the Tropics

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

• Louisiana Ecrivisse, Boyce LA

Birders seek rare birds the same way hunters and fishermen seek huge bucks and large bass. A bird that's rare to our region is the White-tailed Hawk. This bird is regularly found in prairie-like habitat in South and Central America as well as Mexico and Texas. In recent years, however, individuals of this species are being found during winter months in southwestern Louisiana as this distinctive hawk seems to be moving northerly and easterly. The species seems to be following behind Crested Caracaras that now have a strong breeding presence in the region!

The concept of climate change is controversial but northward and eastward movement of birds normally found in the tropics and subtropics are suggestive of such changes. Notable examples we see in our region include Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Neotropic Cormorants. Both species, once rare in southwestern Louisiana are common not only there but much farther north and east than that being regularly found in the central and eastern USA. In the case of raptors like Crested Caracaras and White-tailed Kites are not prolific breeders so simply don't show up like other species.

Often called "Firebirds", visitors to coastal southeastern Texas can find White-tailed Hawks wherever fires occur, especially where sugar cane is being burned in association with harvest. These very large hawks, similar in size to Red-tailed Hawks, hover and kite around the leading edge of fires to find prey including invertebrates like grasshoppers and cicadas and small vertebrates including rodents, rabbits, snakes, lizards and small birds flushed by the oncoming fires. When a tempting prey species is spotted, they will stoop drop down and pick it off and fly nearby to land and eat it.

It takes four years for a White-tailed Hawk to reach maturity. In its first year, a young hawk hardly resembles its parents ranging from being solidly dark below to very pale-breasted with a dark belly and mottled underwings. In the second year, the continue to look like first year birds, but they have darker heads and throats and grayish tail. By the third year, they are much more adult-like in appearance having darker heads, dark gray, almost slate gray like full adults, and white breasts with barred flanks and a narrow tail band.

Adults are really classy looking birds with slate gray back with colorful rufous scapulars ("shoulders"). The underparts are clean white. The short white tail has a distinctive subterminal black band. This plumage gives the birds a distinctive two-toned appearance when seen from below.

According to the late LSU ornithologist George Lowery, Jr., such birds cannot be easily confused with any other raptors.

White-tailed Hawks have yet to be shown to be breeding outside of southeastern Texas. Birds found in central Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and southwestern Louisiana have been only reported in fall and winter apparently moving northward and eastward following the spring-summer breeding season. But, birders need to be alert to finding these unique hawks setting up nests in unexpected locations.

Well, what about piney woods and White-tailed Hawks? According to Dr. Lowery, one of the few reports for this species in Louisiana prior to the mid-1970s was near Bastrop, well insides the piney woods. Numerous reports have occurred in the Lacassine, Louisiana area around the Jefferson Davis Parish landfill, often affectionately referred to as "Mount Trashmore". This is very near the piney woods in the northern part of the parish!