White-tailed Kite aerial exchanges

White-tailed Kites are both nim­ble and quick and both char­ac­ter­is­tics are nec­es­sary in the aer­i­al feed­ing exchange that fre­quent­ly occurs between the male and female and between the adult male and his chicks when he is wean­ing them from the nest. (In the Kite world  Dad Kite does all the hunt­ing and feed­ing.)

male white-tailed kite delivering dinner to chicksThe adult males are sharp-eyed, skilled hunters and need to be since they pro­vide food for both their mates and their chicks. For much of the time while the females are nest­ing food deliv­er is straight­for­ward; fly over the nest hold­ing the mouse or vole by one foot and drop it into the nest. Where­upon the female male white-tail kite brings dinner to matewill tear the rodent apart, feed some to her chicks and devour­ing some her­self.

Breed­ing Pair calls

When the female is not nest­ing, the male may bring the rodent to a branch and hold it there, wait­ing for the female to join him. When she sits beside him, (I have only seen the female sit on his female white-tail kite accepting dinner from materight) the male will drape the rodent over the branch and step to the left, fol­low­ing which she will step over the rodent and take it for her own.

This is not easy to do when on a sway­ing branch but it far eas­i­er than the sec­ond approach. The sec­ond approach is the Aer­i­al Exchange or “Hand-Off.”

The Aer­i­al Exchange

The aer­i­al exchange or “hand-off” is both a part of the mat­ing rit­u­al and an ongo­ing feed­ing prac­tice that may or may not be a con­tin­u­a­tion of the mat­ing rit­u­al. (Per­son­al­ly, I think it is as there is no oth­er rea­son to do it since side-by-side perch­ing and exchang­ing is com­mon and cer­tain­ly eas­i­er to per­form.) Dur­ing the exchange, the male brings a rodent, which he dan­gles from one foot.

male white-tailed kite showing mouse to mateThe female approach­es from below and behind, ris­ing until she is just below the male. At that point, she rotates bring­ing her feet for­ward and rocks upward, seiz­ing the rodent with both feet.

Some author­i­ties say that this is per­formed pri­or to mat­ing and it may be, but I have seen sev­er­al occa­sions when it is per­formed imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing an episode of coitus, which occurs sev­er­al times dur­ing the mat­ing peri­od.

Wean­ing the Chicks

Hun­gry Juve­nile

When the adult male is tired of bring­ing food to his fledg­ling juve­niles, he approach­es with a dan­gling rodent to tempt them from the nest. When they are hun­gry enough and tired of scream­ing with female white-tailed kite accepts mouse from mate no response, they will fly from the nest and one or anoth­er will approach the male and try to maneu­ver into posi­tion to grab the mouse.

The next step in the lur­ing process is female white-tailed kite examines mouseto tempt them with a rodent and fly, with them fol­low­ing, to an open area, drop the rodent to the ground, and leave it there for them to land and con­sume. The last step is to demon­strate div­ing (stoop­ing) and pounc­ing on a prey and bit­ing through its neck.

This Hand-Off

The hand-off shown here occurred after the nest fell to the ground before the fledg­lings were ready to leave. One in par­tic­u­lar was call­ing for food while femal white-tailed kite flies off with mousestand­ing on a branch just above the site of the fall­en nest.

The male intel­li­gent­ly posi­tioned this trans­fer just above and to the side to where the scream­ing juve­nile would see it.

(Nor­mal­ly the hand-off would have been above the tree where mat­ing took place.)

More Kite Sounds

Your com­ments & ques­tions much appre­ci­at­ed

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5 Responses to White-tailed Kite aerial exchanges

  1. Dale Mead says:

    Found it! Amaz­ing. I’m send­ing the URL to my wife.

    FYI, when I click on the sec­ond image of the nest exchange, the Breed­ing Pair Calls audio comes up instead of the enlarge­ment.

    Gonna cruise here awhile, and this after­noon I will buy a viewfind­er eye­cup. If I can mas­ter hand-hold­ing using your tech­niques, I may try shoot­ing video. Wouldn’t that be amaz­ing! Imag­ine cap­tur­ing the aer­i­al exchange in slo-mo, which the newest dig­i­tal cam­eras can do.

  2. Doc says:

    Hi, Richard. I saw your heron pho­tos and then the kites in The Sil­ver Express and was astound­ed — par­tic­u­lar­ly by the “hand­off” pic­tured above. My spouse asked what sort of cam­era, lens and film you used. Did you take a series in quick suc­ces­sion?

    At the time, we thought your shots were all black and white, and won­dered too if you devel­oped them your­self. Although the col­or is gor­geous and also illus­tra­tive, the b & w have an amaz­ing crisp­ness. Thanks for your patience, your eye and the knowl­edge that you share. Please put me on your email list to get a week­ly pic.

    • admin says:

      Well, you now know that I shoot in col­or. I con­vert the col­or in either Light­room or Pho­to­shop to black and white for the Sil­ver Express. Your com­ment came just as I was start­ing a page on pho­tog­ra­phy, you will find it at the top near the tab “About me.” In it I list my cur­rent cam­eras and a bit about how I work.

  3. susan shargel says:

    I love these pho­to essays! The juvie hawk learn­ing to fly is very spe­cial. Thanks for shar­ing your work in this way. Let me know when you do pre­sen­ta­tions near Marin.


    • admin says:

      Hi Susan,
      Thanks for your thoughts. Bird life is so much more than just a quick pho­to or two. I am shift­ing more and more to series of pho­tos that tell a sto­ry.
      The series on the juve­nile Red-tailed Hawk taught me a lot.

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