Letter-winged Kite

Did you know?

The Letter-winged Kite's flight feathers are almost owl-like, being soft and frayed on the trailing edges. This allows them to fly silently on quiet nights, as they seek their rodent prey

Calls
A harsh rasping "karr, karr, karr". Alarm call "keek, keek, keek".
Facts and Figures
Research Species: 
No
Minimum Size: 
33cm
Maximum Size: 
38cm
Average size: 
36cm
Average weight: 
291g
Breeding season: 
Irregular, depends on food availability.
Clutch Size: 
3 to 6
Incubation: 
30 days
Nestling Period: 
32 days
Conservation Status
Federal: 
NT: 
QLD: 
SA: 
Basic Information
Scientific Name: 
Atlas Number: 
233
What does it look like?
Description: 

The Letter-winged Kite is a small to medium-sized raptor (bird of prey). It has a white head, tail and underparts, and is mostly pale grey above. The female bird has a greyer crown. A distinctive black 'W' shape across the underside of its long, broad white wings gives the bird its name. When perching, it has an obvious black shoulder patch. Its large eyes, which are a bright red, are surrounded by black eye-patches, giving it an owl-like appearance. The legs are flesh-coloured.

Similar species: 

The Letter-winged Kite is very similar to the Black-shouldered KiteE. axillarus, but has a slower, deeper wing beat when flying. The Letter-winged Kite has the black under-wing 'W' pattern, and lacks the black wing tips of the Black-shouldered Kite. The Black-shouldered Kite is often seen hovering in the daytime, while the Letter-winged Kite is a nocturnal hunter.

Where does it live?
Distribution: 

The Letter-winged Kite is an endemic species, found in the arid inland regions of western Queensland, northern South Australia and the south of Northern Territory. However it is an irruptive species (has sudden population increases), dispersing to the coast when food is plentiful and there are rat or mouse plagues.

Habitat: 

The Letter-winged Kite is a bird of open country and grasslands in arid and semi-arid Australia, where there are tree-lined streams or water courses. When food is plentiful, the species irrupts and birds may disperse to higher rainfall coastal regions. This kite roosts by day in the high canopy of leafy trees and is the only member of its family that hunts at night.

Seasonal movements: 

The Letter-winged Kite is a nomadic species, coinciding with the distribution of its favourite prey species, the Long-haired Rat, Rattus villosissimus. After breeding, birds may congregate around permanent water.

What does it do?
Feeding: 

The Letter-winged Kite is a nocturnal hunter, pouncing on small rodents and marsupials. Its main prey is the Long-haired Rat.

Breeding: 

The Letter-winged Kite is an opportunistic breeder. This means that the timing of breeding is variable and may be extended in good seasons. The kites may breed in colonies, from 2 to 100 pairs when conditions are right and food is plentiful. The female mainly incubates, broods and cares for the young, while the male brings food for his mate and the nestlings. If food becomes scarce, the nest and young may be abandoned. The nest is well hidden and made of small sticks and twigs, lined with leaves and often rat fur or regurgitated pellets.

Living with us

This species is generally rare, though numbers fluctuate. During an irruption, they may spread to the coast and hunt over farmlands and fields, even entering towns when mice are plentiful.

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