This strikingly beautiful bird is one of the smaller raptors found in western Oregon, rarely measuring over 14 inches (35.5 cm) in length. It has a graceful frame and is often mistaken for a seagull when in flight. Its tri-colored plumage is very distinctive with snowy white feathers over the head, chest and belly; light grey feathers on the wings with a dark gray or black patch on the shoulder. (For this reason, the bird is sometimes referred to as a “Black Shouldered Kite.”) But perhaps its most striking feature is its bright red eyes. This kite is unusual in that it rarely migrates and often lives in large colonies numbering up to one hundred individuals.
Historically, the kite has preferred to nest in open farmland and grasslands where rodents are plentiful. They will generally build small nests of twigs and grass in tall trees overlooking these areas. Like their cousin, the Osprey, the kite will “hover” in one place when hunting. When it spots a prey animal, it will quickly swoop in and snatch it up. When they are spotted in Oregon, it is generally along the coast and coastal mountains. They are considered casual visitors to the state but their numbers appear to be slowly increasing.
Like many birds of prey, the White Tailed Kite was heavily hunted in previous decades due to a misconception that it fed on domesticated poultry. Ironically, the bird’s preferred diet of rodents and insects was probably hugely beneficial to the same farmers and ranchers who hunted it so tenaciously. By the 1940s, the bird was practically extinct in the United States. Although they are slowly recovering, there are few large populations of the kite outside of California and Texas. Habitat destruction in California may account for a resurgence in the Oregon population as the birds head north searching for untouched nesting areas.