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Florida is well known for its unique and abundant
bird life. Not least of which is the wandering hawk
of our southern marshes known for its diet of apple
snails-the Snail Kite
The snail kite is a medium-
sized hawk 14 - 16 inches
long, with a wingspan of
43 - 46 inches, and
weighing approximately 12
-20 ounces. In flight snail
kites exhibit the broad-
winged shape of many of
the soaring hawks. Adult
males are uniformly slate
5 gray. Adult females are
brown with varying
amounts of white streaking
in the face, breast, and
throat. Immature snail kites are similar to adult females but are
more cinnamon colored with tawny or buff-colored streaking
instead of the more pure
white of adult females.
Both sexes have red eyes
as adults and a square-
tipped dark tail with a
distinctive white base.
Juveniles have brown eyes.
The legs and bill of
females and juveniles are
yellow to orange; those of
males are more orange
turning bright orange-red
during nesting. The
slender, curved bill is well
suited to extracting their
primary food, the apple
Snail kites are found throughout the tropics and are locally
common in many parts of South and Central America, Mexico,
and Cuba. In the United States they are found only in central
and south Florida. but historically ranged throughout Florida.
Kites were locally
common in parts of
the panhandle. many
lakes in central
Florida, the upper St.
Johns Marshes, Lake
Okeechobee. and the
recent years the
primary range of
snail kites in Florida
has been restricted to
the Kissimmee River
marshes of the upper
St. Johns River,
and the Everglades.
Habitat of the snadl kite consists of fresh-water marshes and the
shallow vegetated edges of lakes The habitat typically is a
combination of open water with emergent vegetation such as
spike rush and maidencane, often interspersed with patches of
sawgrass or cattadils. Kites require the relatively open water in
order to see apple snails The emergent vegetation enables
apple snailds to climb near the surface to feed, breathe, or lay
eggs. Woody vegetation such as willows, pond apples, and wax
myrtles are where nests are often built. Where these are
lacking, kites nest in dense emergent vegetation such as cattails.
sawgrass, or bulrush. This vegetation also may be used as
communal roost sites during non-breeding periods
The snail kite is a food specialist which feeds almost exclusively
on the fresh-water apple snail. During times of low snail
abundance they occasionally eat other foods, particularly small
They capture snails primarily
by flying slow and low over
the marsh in search of snails,
or by still hunting from a
perch. When a kite sees an
apple snatd, the bird drops to
the surface to capture it.
Unlike ospreys which often
plunge into the water after fish,
snail kites generally pluck
snadls from the top few inches
of water. Only snails near the surface of the water are
vulnerable to this method of hunting. During the nesting
season, kites are restricted to foraging in the vicinity of their
nests During the remainder of the year, they may exhibit
unpredictable shifts throughout their range in response to
changing snail availability.
NESTING & ROOSTING
Snail kite nesting has been reported in almost every month of
the year but typically occurs from February through June.
Courtship begins with aerial displays whereby males perform a
series of short undulating ascents and dives mixed with a flight
of slow exaggerated wing beats. During courtship females call
to males making a sound which resembles fishing line being
pulled from a spinning reel. This call incites males to bring her
food or nesting material as part of the courtship. Their alarm
call is a crisp bleating rattle made by both sexes in the vicinity
of their nests. Males are the primary builders of nests which
are constructed of sticks and twigs and lined with leaves such as
wdllow. Kites may nest singly or in proximity to other kites or
to other colonial waterbirds. Aggregations of kite nests have
been described as "loose colonies". Territory defense in kites
is restricted to a radius of several feet around the nest.
Typically 2 to 4 eggs are laid which range from whitish to
brown, but are usually splotched with browns and tans.
Incubation lasts approximately 27 days and the nestlings fledge
after 4 to 5 weeks. Nesting success may be influenced by a
variety of factors including food abundance, predation, nest
stability, water levels, and weather Parents continue to feed
their young for several weeks after fledging. If a nest fails,
kites will often re-nest. They may also raise more than one
brood if conditions are favorable. During tunes of food
abundance, one of the parents may desert its mate when the
young are a few weeks old. The deserting parent may then
renest with another mate and the deserted parent usually is able
to successfully raise the young.
The social behavior of snail
kites is one of aggregation
during nesting. But, during
non-nesting times, they form
nocturnal roosts of flocks
ranging from two to a few
hundred birds. This
behavior enables researchers
to survey numbers of kites
MANAGEMENT & CONSERVATION
Snail kites suffered a major population decline during the rust
half of this century due to extensive drainage of Florida's
wetlands. Thus, management of snail kites today consists
primarily of conserving wetlands and trying to maintain
adequate water quantity and quality for their habitat. The water
quantity needed is a balance between having enough water to
ensure the survival of apple snails and to provide openings in
the vegetation, but not having so much water that the emergent
vegetation is lost. This balance was historically maintained in
the sloughs of the Everglades and other marshes and along the
shorelines of many lakes. In recent years this balance has
become increasingly difficult to maintain because of increasing
water demands for urban and agricultural needs. The need to
conserve our limited supplies of water therefore is important to
the long-term survival of snail kites as well as our wetlands as
Water quality is equally as important as water quantity
Increasing nutrients, particularly phosphorus, from agricultural
runoff results in widespread conversion of native marshlands to
dense stands of cattails and water hyacinth. These stands are
often too dense to allow kites to forage. Current research also
suggests that there also may be detrimental effects of this change
on apple snails by decreasing oxygen levels in the water.
Additional research is needed on apple snails and improved
agricultural practices are needed to ensure water quality for the
Snail kites are legally protected b) both the United States Fish
and Wildlife Service and the Florida Game and Fresh Water
Fish Commission under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and Chapter 39, Florida
Administrative Code, respectively. This protection makes it
illegal to possess, harm, or harass snail kites. It also requires
that projects on state and federal lands deemed critical to the
survival of snail kites be evaluated for their impact on snail kite
Most research thus far has
focused on the habitat
requirements and nesting ecology
of kites and how they are
influenced by environmental
conditions. This research is
continuing and additional efforts
are underway to learn how
en%, ironmental conditions
influence the survival and
distribution of kites. Nesting and
winter surveys allow researchers
to monitor numbers and the
distribution of kites. The use of colored leg bands and radio
- transmitters are important tools
t. for this research. The color of
leg bands may indicate where a
O particular kite was hatched
Combinations of colors or
a a u numbers on its band may also
Sell where it was raised or its
age. Radio transmitters are used
to determine where a kite moves
as environmental conditions
change, how frequently it nests,
and whether or not it survives.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
I. ENCOURAGE THE CONSERVATION OF FLORIDA'S
REMAINING WETLANDS. Wetland habitats are vital to the
su'rv val of snail kites and many other species of plants and
animals, including man.
2. SUPPORT ESTABLISHMENT OF REGIONAL AND
LOCAL WETLAND PRESERVES. Protection of snail kite
populations on managed tracts of marsh often is compatible with
many human uses such as recreation and education.
3. ENCOURAGE AGRICULTURAL PRACTICES WHICH
MINIMIZE ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINATION
FROM THE USE OF PESTICIDES, HERBICIDES, AND
FERTILIZERS. These compounds may directly or indirectly
cause the degradation of wetlands or contribute to the decline of
sensitive species such as the snail kite.
4. CONSERVE OUR WATER RESOURCES BY
REDUCING NON-ESSENTIAL WATER USE. Much of
Florida's precious water supply is used carelessly through
excessive watering of lawns, washing cars, and running of water
faucets. Contact your local water management district office for
ways that you might better conserve our water resource.
5. REPORT ANY HARASSMENT OF SNAIL KITES
SUCH AS SHOOTING, DISTURBANCE OF NEST SITES,
OR IRRESPONSIBLE BOATING ACTIVITIES THAT
MIGHT DESTROY HABITAT OR DISRUPT ANIMAL
BEHAVIOR. Call you nearest wildlife alert toll-free: Lakeland
1-800-282-8002 or West Palm Beach 1-800-432-2046.
This project was sponsored by:
S Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) interacts with
snail kites in many parts of its service territory.
It is the company 's intent to continue to conduct
[FP3L business in an environmentally responsible manner.
SDuring 1985. 372 snail kites were counted using a
Sroost site which is now protected and monitored by
the Solid Waste Authority of Pabn Beach County.
This is the largest known roosting aggregation of
snail kites. This site continues to be used by both
nesting and roosting kites.
As many as 140 snail kites have been counted using
marshes of the Upper St Johns River Basin Project.
This project is operated, maintained, and managed
by the St. Johns River Water Management District.
These areas have become important habitat for both
nesting and wintering kites.
Robert E. Bennetts - Cover, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12
Brian R. Toland - 1, 5. 9, 11
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