The letter-winged kite (Elanus scriptus) is a small, rare and irruptive bird of prey that is found only in Australia. Measuring around 35 cm (14 in) in length with a wingspan of 84–100 cm (33–39 in), the adult letter-winged kite has predominantly pale grey and white plumage and prominent black rings around its red eyes. It gains its name from the highly distinctive black underwing pattern of a shallow 'M' or 'W' shape, seen when in flight. This distinguishes it from the otherwise similar black-shouldered kite.
The species begins breeding in response to rodent outbreaks, with pairs nesting in loose colonies of up to 50 birds each. Three to four eggs are laid and incubated for around thirty days, though the eggs may be abandoned if the food source disappears. Chicks are fledged within five weeks of hatching. Roosting in well-foliaged trees during the day, the letter-winged kite hunts mostly at night. It is a specialist predator of rodents, which it hunts by hovering in mid-air above grasslands and fields. It is rated as near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s Red List of Threatened Species.
|Range of the letter-winged kite (2007)|
The letter-winged kite was described by ornithologist John Gould in 1842 under its current binomial name Elanus scriptus. The specific epithet is from the Latin word scriptum, meaning "written" or "marked". British explorer Charles Sturt wrote of seeing them on his travels in his 1849 book Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia. The letter-winged kite is monotypic: no subspecies are recognised, nor is there any recorded geographic variation. Molecular evidence shows that the letter-winged kite and its relatives belong to the subfamily Elaninae, an early offshoot within the raptor family Accipitridae. There is some evidence that they may be more divergent from other raptors and better placed in their own family.
"Letter-winged kite" has been designated the official English-language name by the International Ornithologists' Union (IOC), derived from the letter-like markings under the wings. In Central Australia, southwest of Alice Springs, the Pitjantjatjara name for the letter-winged kite is nyanyitjira. It has been incorrectly called white-breasted sparrowhawk.
The adult letter-winged kite is about 35 cm (14 in) in length, with a wingspan between 84 and 100 cm (33 and 39 in). The female is slightly heavier, averaging 310 g (11 oz) compared to the male's average weight of 260 g (9.2 oz). The sexes have similar plumage. The adult male has pale grey upperparts, wings and nape with a white head and white underparts. It has large deep-red eyes, which are surrounded by a black eye patch. Its bill is black, with a dark grey-brown cere at its base. Its wings are marked with a black shoulder patch above and a striking black line underneath, which runs from the primary coverts to the body, and which resembles a letter 'M' or 'W' when flying. The central rectrices of the tail are pale grey, while the rest of the tail feathers are white. The legs and feet are a fleshy pinkish white or white. The feet have three toes facing forwards and one toe facing backwards. The female is similar but can be distinguished by a greyer crown, and its grey plumage is slightly darker all over. Moulting has been recorded from all months except May and August, and is probably related to breeding.
The juvenile has a white lower forehead, face, chin and throat, with a brownish orange band across the forehead, neck and breast. It has a similar dark eye patch to the adult, and the eyes themselves are dark brown. The hindneck is grey-brown, and the upperpart feathers are grey-brown with orange tips. The rump and central tail rectrices are pale grey tipped with orange. The bill is black with a brownish grey cere.
The letter-winged kite soars with v-shaped upcurved wings, the primaries slightly spread and the tail fanned, giving it a square appearance. When flying actively, it beats its wings more slowly and deeply than the black-shouldered kite (Elanus axillaris). The wing beats are interspersed with long glides on angled wings. It can also hover motionless facing into the wind and flapping its wings. The 'M' or 'W' on the underside of its wing and lack of black wing tips help distinguish it from the black-shouldered kite. Additionally, the latter species is diurnal, not nocturnal. At night, the letter-winged kite could be mistaken for the eastern barn owl (Tyto javanica) or eastern grass owl (T. longimembris), but these species have large heads; longer and trailing legs; blunted wings; and stockier bodies. The grey falcon (Falco hypoleucos) has somewhat similar colouration to the letter-winged kite but is bulkier and heavier overall, and lacks the black markings.
The letter-winged kite is generally silent when alone but often noisy when breeding or roosting communally at night, beginning to call at the rising of the moon. Its calls have been described as chicken-like chirping or a repeated loud kacking, and at times resemble those of the barn owl or black-shouldered kite. A rasping call, or scrape, composed of six or seven half-second long notes is the main contact call between a pair. It is often used by the female in answer to a whistle by her mate, when a bird alights at the nest, or—loudly—in response to an intruder. The male can utter a loud whistle in flight, which can serve as an alarm call. Mated pairs chatter to one another at night in the colony.
The usual habitat of the letter-winged kite is arid and semi-arid open, shrubby or grassy country, across the arid interior of the continent, particularly the southern Northern Territory, particularly the Barkly Tableland, and northeastern South Australia, and Queensland, where it is relatively common in western areas south of 20° south, and has been recorded as far afield as Townsville and Stradbroke Island. In South Australia it may reach the Eyre Peninsula and southeastern corner on occasion. The species is generally rare in New South Wales: it has been recorded in the vicinity of Broken Hill in the far west, and twice in Inverell in the north of the state—once found dead in a street in 1965 and once spotted alive a year later. It is rare in Western Australia.
Its abundance or even presence in any given area is heavily dependent on availability of food; spells of significant rainfall inland lead to surges in rodent numbers, which in turn lead to irruptions of letter-winged kites. Nesting and raising multiple broods in succession, the kite population may increase ten-fold. Major irruptions have taken place in 1951–53, 1969–70, 1976–77, and 1993–95. Eventually dry conditions lead to a fall in rodent numbers and dispersal of birds, which often starve if they fail to find prey elsewhere.
The letter-winged kite typically hunts at night, with daytime foraging taking place in areas of superabundant or scarce prey. By day, birds roost in leafy trees with plenty of cover, in colonies of up to 400 individuals, becoming active at dusk. Their social behaviour is poorly known on account of their nocturnal habits and shy nature, being difficult to approach when roosting.
Within its range, the letter-winged kite generally breeds in an area covering the Diamantina and Lake Eyre drainage basins, Sturt Stony Desert, eastern Simpson Desert and Barkly Tableland, to Richmond, Queensland, and Banka Banka Station in the north and Boolkarie Creek, South Australia, in the south. Nesting has also been recorded in Exmouth Gulf and southwest Western Australia, the southwest of the Northern Territory, and the Clarence River district and northwest of New South Wales. The birds nest in colonies of up to 50 pairs, and have more than one nest and brood at once. At times their nests are close to those of spotted harriers (Circus assimilis), black kites (Milvus migrans), whistling kites (Haliastur sphenurus), brown falcons (Falco berigora) and black falcons (Falco subniger).
It is not known if breeding pairs remain bonded after breeding. Aerial courtship displays involve mutual flight high above the nest, with the male flying much higher than the female and holding its wings high with rapidly fluttering wingtips. He drops near its mate, who responds by holding her wings in a similar manner. The two then chatter while circling each other. Copulation often follows.
There does not appear to be a set breeding season; instead, the species forms nesting colonies in response to rodent irruptions. Birds produce broods for as long as the rodents are abundant, and stop when their food source declines. Often smaller trees are chosen as nesting sites over larger ones, with some preference given to the beefwood (Grevillea striata). Other species used include waddy (Acacia peuce), coolibah (Eucalyptus microtheca) and sheoaks (Casuarina spp.). Generally there is one nest per tree, though there may be more than one nest in single trees when rodent irruptions provide an abundance of food. The nest is a large, untidy and shallow cup of sticks, usually located in the foliage near the top of trees, some five metres (15 ft) or higher off the ground. On average it is about 50 cm (20 in) wide and 34 cm (13 in) high, with a 20 cm (8 in) diameter cup-shaped depression within. It is lined with green leaves and other material such as regurgitated pellets.
The clutch consists of three to four, or rarely five or even six, dull white eggs measuring on average 44 mm × 32 mm (1.7 in × 1.3 in) with red-brown blotches and tapered oval in shape. The markings are often heavier around the larger end of the egg. The female incubates the eggs for 30 days, though this has been difficult to confirm due to unpredictable breeding. The young are born semi-altricial, covered in white down with black beaks and feet and dark brown eyes. By a week old, they have pale tan down on their back and brown eyes. They are fully feathered by 3–4 weeks of age and can fly at 7 weeks. During this time they are brooded by the female, while the male brings food at night. He calls on his approach, at which the female flies out to receive the food and then convey it to the young. Though not known to feed the young himself, the male may at times bring food to the female on the nest. As the brood grows, the female joins the male in catching food; she may eventually begin a second brood and leave the male to feed the older brood. Nestlings fledge at around 32 days, although have been known to be abandoned if the food supply suddenly disappears. Birds in juvenile plumage reach sexual maturity within their first year of age.
The letter-winged kite hunts mainly in the first two hours after sunset. It flies at a height of 10 to 20 m (35 to 65 ft), moving in wide circles scanning the ground, then hovers at a height of up to 30 m (100 ft). When prey is spotted, the kite drops silently onto it, feet-first with wings raised high.
The letter-winged kite's principal prey is the long-haired rat (Rattus villosissimus). When population numbers of this rodent build up, following significant rainfall, the kites are able to breed continuously and colonially so that their numbers increase in parallel. One Central Australian study over two and a half years found that, within six months of an outbreak starting, the birds had relocated to that location. When the rodent populations decline, the now superabundant kites may disperse and appear in coastal areas far from their normal range; though they may occasionally breed in these new locations, they do not persist and eventually disappear.
Across Central Australia, the letter-winged kite shares its habitat with another nocturnal rodent hunter, the eastern barn owl; the latter species prefers larger rodents such as the plains rat (Pseudomys australis), whereas the kite hunts all species, including the sandy inland mouse (Pseudomys hermannsburgensis) and spinifex hopping mouse (Notomys alexis), on availability. Other predators sharing its habitat and prey include the dingo, feral cat and fox. Overall, letter-winged kites average one rodent consumed per day. They have also been recorded hunting the introduced house mouse (Mus musculus) in north-eastern South Australia. Other animals recorded as prey include rabbit, fat-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis crassicaudata), stripe-faced dunnart (Sminthopsis macroura), Forrest's mouse (Leggadina forresti ), beetles and spur‐throated locust (Nomadacris guttulosa).
Black falcons have been reported hunting adult letter-winged kites, while black kites have taken nestlings.
The letter-winged kite's fluctuations in abundance make its conservation status difficult to assess, though it is clearly much less common than the black-shouldered kite. It also rarely comes into contact with people across most of its range. It is rated as near threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, as its population may number as low as 1,000 individuals between irruptions. It is unknown to what extent competition for food with the introduced red fox or feral cat, or if habitat degraded by overgrazing, have an impact on the letter-winged kite. It is not known whether the population has increased or decreased overall since European settlement.
John MacGillivray sails as naturalist on board HMS Fly, despatched to survey the Torres Strait, New Guinea.
Lovell Augustus Reeve begins trading as a natural history dealer
Little owl introduced to Great Britain
Christian Ludwig Brehm begins Monographie der Papageien oder vollständige Naturgeschichte aller bis jetzt bekannten Papageien mit getreuen und ausgemalten Abbildungen, im Vereine mit anderen Naturforscher herausgegeben von C.L. Brehm. - Jena & Paris 1842-1855
Death of Robert Mudie
Jules Verreaux travels to Australia to collect for the dealership "Maison Verreaux"
Martin Lichtenstein describes the southern yellow-billed hornbill in a sale catalogue Verzeichnis einer Sammlung von Saugethieren und Vogeln aus dem Kaffernland
Florent Prévost and Marc Athanese Parfait Oeillet Des Murs describe the undulated antpitta
Hugh Edwin Strickland draws up the report of a committee appointed by the British Association to consider the rules of zoological nomenclature. This establishes the Principle of Priority
Gaetano Cara publishes Elenco degli uccelli che trovansi nell'isola di Sardegna, od ornitologia sarda
Johann Jakob Kaup Die Gavial-artigen Reste aus dem Lias (1842–1844).
John Cassin becomes curator of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences
Hummingbird specialist Jules Bourcier formally describes the white-bellied woodstar.Ongoing events
The Birds of Australia birds first described in this work in 1842 include the green pygmy goose, the painted firetail, the torrent duck, the letter-winged kite and the welcome swallow .
William Jardine and Prideaux John Selby with the co-operation of James Ebenezer Bicheno Illustrations of ornithology various publishers (Four volumes) 1825 and [1836–43]. Although issued partly in connection with the volume of plates, under the same title (at the time of issue), text and plates were purchasable separately and the publishers ... express the hope, also voiced by the author in his preface to the present work, that the text will constitute an independent work of reference. Vol. I was issued originally in 1825 [by A. Constable, Edinburgh], with nomenclature according to TemminckBird of prey
Birds of prey, or raptors, include species of bird that primarily hunt and feed on vertebrates that are large relative to the hunter. Additionally, they have keen eyesight for detecting food at a distance or during flight, strong feet equipped with talons for grasping or killing prey, and powerful, curved beaks for tearing flesh. The term raptor is derived from the Latin word rapio, meaning to seize or take by force. In addition to hunting live prey, most also eat carrion, at least occasionally, and vultures and condors eat carrion as their main food source.Although the term bird of prey could theoretically be taken to include all birds that primarily consume animals, ornithologists typically use the narrower definition followed in this page. Examples of animal-eating birds not encompassed by the ornithological definition include storks, herons, gulls, skuas, penguins, kookaburras, and shrikes, as well as the many songbirds that are primarily insectivorous.Black-shouldered kite
The black-shouldered kite (Elanus axillaris), also known as the Australian black-shouldered kite, is a small raptor found in open habitat throughout Australia. It resembles similar species found in Africa, Eurasia and North America, including the black-winged kite, a species that has in the past also been called "black-shouldered kite". Measuring around 35 cm (14 in) in length with a wingspan of 80–100 cm (31–39 in), the adult black-shouldered kite has predominantly grey-white plumage and prominent black markings above its red eyes. It gains its name from the black patches on its wings. The primary call is a clear whistle, uttered in flight and while hovering. It can be confused with the related letter-winged kite in Australia, which is distinguished by the striking black markings under its wings.
The species forms monogamous pairs, breeding between August and January. The birds engage in aerial courtship displays which involve high circling flight and ritualised feeding mid-air. Three or four eggs are laid and incubated for around thirty days. Chicks are fully fledged within five weeks of hatching and can hunt for mice within a week of leaving the nest. Juveniles disperse widely from the home territory. The black-shouldered kite hunts in open grasslands, searching for its prey by hovering and systematically scanning the ground. It mainly eats small rodents, particularly the introduced house mouse, and has benefitted from the modification of the Australian landscape by agriculture. It is rated as least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s Red List of "Endangered species."Black-winged kite
The black-winged kite (Elanus caeruleus), also known as the black-shouldered kite (not to be confused with the closely related Australian species with the same name), is a small diurnal bird of prey in the family Accipitridae best known for its habit of hovering over open grasslands in the manner of the much smaller kestrels. This Eurasian and African species was sometimes combined with the Australian black-shouldered kite (Elanus axillaris) and the white-tailed kite (Elanus leucurus) of North and South America which together form a superspecies. This kite is distinctive, with long wings; white, grey and black plumage; and owl-like forward-facing eyes with red irises. The owl-like behaviour is even more pronounced in the letter-winged kite (Elanus scriptus), a nocturnal relative in Australia. Although mainly seen on plains, they are sometimes seen on grassy slopes of hills in the higher elevation regions of Asia. They are not migratory, but show nomadism in response to weather and food availability. They are well adapted to utilize periodic upsurges in rodent populations and can raise multiple broods in a single year unlike most birds of prey. Populations in southern Europe have grown in response to human activities, particularly agriculture and livestock rearing.Elaninae
An elanine kite is any of several small, lightly-built raptors with long, pointed wings.
Some authorities list the group as a formal subfamily, Elaninae. As a subfamily there are six species in three genera with two of these genera being monotypic. Two other species have at times been included with the group, but genetic research has shown them to belong to different subfamilies.
Elanine kites have a near-worldwide distribution, with two endemic species found in the Americas, two in Australia, and one in Africa, while the black-winged kite is found over a vast range from Europe and Africa in the west to Southeast Asia in the east.Elanus
Elanus is a genus of bird of prey in the elanine kite subfamily. It was introduced by the French zoologist Jules-César Savigny in 1809 with the black-winged kite (Elanus caeruleus) as the type species. The name is from the Ancient Greek elanos for a "kite".The genus contains four species:
The first three species above were considered conspecific as subspecies of Elanus caeruleus, which has been known as the black-shouldered kite.These are white and grey raptors of open country, with black wing markings and a short square tail. They hunt by slowly quartering the habitat for rodents and other small mammals, birds and insects, sometimes hovering like a kestrel.Forrest's mouse
The Forrest's mouse (Leggadina forresti), or desert short-tailed mouse, is a small species of rodent in the family Muridae. It is a widespread but sparsely distributed species found across arid and semi-arid inland Australia, commonly found in tussock grassland, chenopod shrubland, and mulga or savannah woodlands.Goyder Lagoon
The Goyder Lagoon is a large ephemeral swamp in the Australian state of South Australia in the state's Far North region. The lake is part of the Diamantina River floodplain, lying beside the Birdsville Track close to the state border with Queensland.
It is located within the gazetted locality of Clifton Hills Station which is occupied by the pastoral lease of the same name.Exceptionally large floods in the Georgina-Mulligan River system may contribute water to the north-western side of Goyder Lagoon via Eyre Creek and the Warburton River. Most of the lagoon consists of shallow, braided micro-channels. It lies within the Median annual rainfall is 100–150 millimetres (3.9–5.9 in) and average maximum summer temperatures are 36 to 39 °C (97 to 102 °F).Goyder Lagoon was named in 1875 by J W Lewis after George Goyder, the Surveyor General of South Australia from 1861 to 1894.Kite (bird)
Kite is the common name for certain birds of prey in the family Accipitridae, particularly in subfamilies Milvinae, Elaninae, and Perninae.Some authors use the terms "hovering kite" and "soaring kite" to distinguish between Elanus and the milvine kites, respectively. The groups may also be differentiated by size, referring to milvine kites as "large kites", and elanine kites as "small kites".List of Accipitriformes species
Accipitriformes is one of three major orders of birds of prey and includes the osprey, hawks, eagles, kites, and vultures. Falcons (Falconiformes) and owls (Strigiformes) are the other two major orders and are listed in other articles. The International Ornithological Congress (IOC) recognizes 266 species of Accipitriformes distributed among four families. Among them is the family Cathartidae (New World vultures) which the American Ornithological Society (AOS) and the Clements taxonomy place in its own order, Cathartiformes. The list also includes the Bermuda hawk, Bermuteo avivorus, which has been extinct since the early 17th century.This list is presented according to the IOC taxonomic sequence and can also be sorted alphabetically by common name, family, and binomial.List of Falconiformes by population
This is a list of Falconiformes and Accipitriformes species by global population. While numbers are estimates, they have been made by the experts in their fields. For more information on how these estimates were ascertained, see Wikipedia's articles on population biology and population ecology.
This list is incomprehensive, as not all Falconiformes have had their numbers quantified.List of birds of Australia
This is a list of the wild birds found in Australia including its outlying islands and territories, but excluding the Australian Antarctic Territory. The outlying islands covered include: Christmas, Cocos (Keeling), Ashmore, Torres Strait, Coral Sea, Lord Howe, Norfolk, Macquarie and Heard/McDonald. The list includes introduced species, common vagrants and recently extinct species. It excludes species only present in captivity. 973 extant and extinct species are listed.
There have been three comprehensive accounts: the first was John Goulds Birds of Australia, the second Gregory Mathews, and third was the Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (1990-2006).
The taxonomy originally followed is from Christidis and Boles, 2008. Their system has been developed over nearly two decades and has strong local support, but deviates in important ways from more generally accepted schemes. Supplemental updates follow The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, 2019 edition. This list also uses British English throughout. Any bird names or other wording follows that convention.List of birds of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica
This list is based on the Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds list, May 2002 update, with the doubtfuls omitted. It includes the birds of Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, and the surrounding ocean and subantarctic islands.
Australian call-ups are based on the List of Australian birds.
New Zealand call-ups are based on the List of New Zealand birds.List of birds of Kangaroo Island, South Australia
The following is a list of the birds recorded on Kangaroo Island, South Australia.List of birds of South Australia
This is a list of birds of South Australia, a state within Australia.List of birds of Western Australia
This is a list of the wild birds found in Western Australia. The list includes introduced species, common vagrants, recently extinct species, extirpated species, some very rare vagrants (seen once) and species only present in captivity. 627 species are listed.The taxonomy is based on Christidis and Boles, 2008. Their system has been developed over nearly two decades and has strong local support, but deviates in important ways from more generally accepted schemes.
This list's taxonomic treatment (designation and sequence of orders, families and species) and nomenclature (common and scientific names) follow the conventions of The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, 2019 edition. All of the birds below are included in the total bird count for Western Australia.
The following tags have been used to highlight several categories. The commonly occurring native species do not fall into any of these categories.
(A) Accidental - a species that rarely or accidentally occurs in Western Australia
(I) Introduced - a species introduced to Western Australia as a consequence, direct or indirect, of human actions
(Ex) Extirpated - a species that no longer occurs in Western Australia although populations exist elsewhere
(X) Extinct - a species or subspecies that no longer exists.List of near threatened birds
As of May 2019, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 1012 near threatened avian species. 9.3% of all evaluated avian species are listed as near threatened.
No subpopulations of birds have been evaluated by the IUCN.
This is a complete list of near threatened avian species evaluated by the IUCN. Where possible common names for taxa are given while links point to the scientific name used by the IUCN.Long-haired rat
The long-haired rat (Rattus villosissimus), is a species of rodent in the family Muridae which is native to Australia. The long-haired rat is well known for its population eruptions over vast areas of Australia which is the basis of its alternative common name, the plague rat. Most of the research on the long-haired rat has been conducted during times of massive population fluctuations and therefore little is known about their biology in a non-eruptive period.Sibley-Monroe checklist 8
The Sibley-Monroe checklist was a landmark document in the study of birds. It drew on extensive DNA-DNA hybridisation studies to reassess the relationships between modern birds.