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ECOVIEWS: Swallow-tailed kites are graceful acrobats

September 16, 2018

The aerial show was awesome – swooping, gliding, banking, rolling upside down and other airborne acrobatics. We were not watching a Blue Angels air show but instead a gathering of swallow-tailed kites, one of nature’s most graceful birds. No bird can travel near the speed of sound, but the kites outdid the Navy jets in one respect – they caught hundreds, maybe thousands, of flying insects while we watched. A kite uses its talons to capture grasshoppers and dragonflies perched on vegetation or even in midair; then the elegant fowl brings a talon to its mouth for an inflight snack. Remarkable birds.

Swallow-tailed kites have disappeared from most of the states they once occupied and are generally in Florida during the warm months. But an ornithologist friend told me about a large field in South Carolina they migrate to where my son, grandson and I watched the captivating show for two hours. Dozens of kites, including swallow-tails and Mississippi kites, soared lazily, often hovering just above our heads before making a sweep of the insect-filled field. Faster-flying barn swallows also skirted around the area, mostly catching higher-flying insect prey. The experience was both relaxing and exciting, and offered us a smorgasbord of sensations. We stood next to the barbed wire fence alongside a lonely, seldom-traveled blacktop highway. No one else was around.

During the first few minutes we spoke among ourselves, the only people present. “Here comes another one. Did you see that one dive? Look, there’s 4 swallow-tails and 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi…” etc. Soon, simply watching and wondering was enough, giving time for reflection. My first thought was that this was a marvelous field to have so many insects that would attract these spectacular birds. I silently applauded the land owner for not using pesticides that would have eliminated the prey sought by the kites, swallows and probably many other birds. The cascade effect of the overuse of pesticides in agricultural areas is an affliction to native wildlife across the nation. Insects are killed, true, but insectivorous birds and other wildlife are unintended casualties through loss of their natural food or uptake of the poisons themselves. People who enjoy nature are also victims because of missed opportunities to see such an awe-inspiring performance.

I thought the air show would be a new experience for many of today’s teenagers who are enslaved by electronics. They might use their cellphones to take photos of a hovering swallow-tailed kite or one with a large insect in its grasp as it glided by. Maybe a friend would be sent a text with a photo, but nothing else. The air show would entrance them. The siren call of the phone would be silenced, at least for a while. A more personal consideration was that I was grateful to watch birds I could identify. Even I cannot confuse a swallow-tailed kite with any other bird.

I also wondered how many insects a kite or swallow must eat in a day, considering that they fly continuously for hours, constantly catching prey, many of which are moving targets. Later that week I saw a scientific article written by Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel in Switzerland with his colleagues Çağan Şekercioğlu and Christopher Whelan that provided some insight. The title was “Insectivorous Birds Consume an Estimated 400–500 Million Tons of Prey Annually.” Based on an accumulation of records worldwide, the study confirmed that the economic importance of insect-eating birds “in suppressing potentially harmful insect pests on a global scale” is extraordinary. Kites were not mentioned specifically, but based on our brief survey, they are doing their part.

I hope to continue our observations next year when the swallow-tailed kites return from their winter home in South America. If you don’t have the opportunity to catch a Blue Angels show, I guarantee that if you can find one put on by swallow-tailed kites, it will be a satisfactory replacement.

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