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Letter-winged Kite
Elanus scriptus

Status: Near Threatened

Population Trend: Unknown.

Other Names: 

Elanus scriptus
click to enlarge
Distribution: Australasian. Endemic to AUSTRALIA. more....

Subspecies: Monotypic.

Taxonomy: Griffiths et al. (2007) showed that and Elanus are sister taxa. Their results, and those of Wink and Sauer-Gürth (2004) and Lerner and Mindell (2005), showed that the genus Elanus is basal to all other Accipitridae and that it might even form a separate family.

Movements: Irruptive or local migrant (Bildstein 2006). Irruptive movements, mainly of first-year or second-year birds, into coastal areas occur after a flush of breeding during favorable conditions, leading to rapid growth of breeding colonies (Debus 1998). When populations of their main prey, mostly Long-tailed Rats, are low, this species remains along water courses, but when rodent populations reach plague proportions, it disperses more widely and breeds continuously. Following plagues, birds disperse to coastal areas, where many of them die (Baker-Gabb and Fitzherbert 1989).

Habitat and Habits: Often nests and roosts colonially and is largely nocturnal, spending the day roosting in coolabah trees (Hollands 1977, Olsen op cit.). Occurs along dry, timbered watercourses and sparsely vegetated grasslands of channel country and billabongs (Olsen 1995). Forages by quartering and hovering, then dropping to capture prey on the ground (Debus 1998).

Food and Feeding Behavior: Feeds mostly on rodents and seems to be particularly dependent upon the Long-haired Rat (Rattus villosissimus) which undergoes periodic population explosions following heavy rainfall (Olsen 1995, Debus 1998). Also takes other small mammals, reptiles, and insects (Debus op cit.). Sometimes hunts in groups.

Breeding: Breeds in large colonies containing up to 100 individuals (Hollands 1977, Olsen 1995), but sometimes solitarily (Debus 1998). The nest is usually a platform of twigs, lined with green leaves or cattle dung, and placed 2-11 m above the ground in the canopy of a live tree (Debus op cit.). The old nests of other species, e.g., ravens, may also be used (Beruldsen 1971). Clutch size is usually 4-5 eggs, ranging from 3 to 6. The incubation period is probably about 31 days, and the nestling period is 30-35 days (Debus op cit.). During a rat plague, this species can produce several clutches in succession. more....

Conservation: This is one of Australia's rarest birds of prey, and it is categorized as Near Threatened nationally (Garnett et al. 2011) and globally (BirdLife International). There are no known major threats. Competition with introduced predators, including foxes and feral cats, may reduce breeding productivity (Pavey et al. 2008), and cats may take nestlings. more....

Population Estimates: Fluctuates, but may be as low as 1,000 individuals in the poorest years (Garnett et al. 2011).

Important References: 
Debus, S.J.S. 1994. Letter-winged Kite. Pp. 116 in del Hoyo, J., A.
  Elliott, and J. Sargatal (eds.), Handbook of birds of the world. Vol. 2. New
  World vultures to guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.
Debus, S. 1998. The birds of prey of Australia: a field guide. Oxford
  University Press, Melbourne.
Debus, S. 2008. Diurnal raptors under threat. Bird Observer 856:5-8.
Ferguson-Lees, J., and D.A. Christie. 2001. Raptors of the world. Houghton
  Mifflin, Boston, MA.
Garnett, S.T., J.K. Szabo, and G. Dutson. 2011. The action plan for
  Australian birds 2010. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victortia, Australia.
Griffiths, C.S., G.F. Barrowclough, J.G. Groth, and L.A. Mertz. 2007.
  Phylogeny, diversity, and classification of the Accipitridae based on DNA
  sequences of the RAG-1 exon. Journal of Avian Biology 38:587-602.
Hollands, D. 1977. Field observations on the Letter-winged Kite, eastern
  Simpson Desert, 1974-1976. Australian Bird Watcher 7:73-80.
Marchant, S., and P. Higgins (eds.). Handbook of Australian, New Zealand,
  and Antarctic birds. Vol. 2. Raptors to lapwings. Oxford University Press,
  Melbourne, Australia.
Olsen, P. 1995. Australian birds of prey. John Hopkins University Press,
  Baltimore, MD.

Sites of Interest:
Letter-winged Kite photos.

Gregory, Tim

Last modified: 2/23/2017

Recommended Citation: Global Raptor Information Network. 2020. Species account: Letter-winged Kite Elanus scriptus. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 4 Jul. 2020

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