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Snail Kite

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

May 10, 2017

In the biological world, if you are adapted to a live and depend upon a specific habitat or have evolved to feed on a specific kind of food, you are called a species specialist. Conversely, if you are not adapted to a specific habitat or food, you are called a species generalist.

Species specialists have a hard time living anywhere outside of their specific habitat or feeding upon anything other than what they have evolved to eat. As their environments change or food supply becomes scarce these species don't do very well and populations tend to drop.

On my recent trip to SW Florida I had the great fortune to spend some quality time with a Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis). The Snail Kite is a bird of prey (raptor) that lives only in southern Florida, parts of Mexico, the Caribbean, and much of South America. It is a very species specific bird and considered an endangered species in southern Florida with only about 400 breeding pairs.

It is a gregarious bird that lives in freshwater wetlands and feeds all most exclusively on Apple Snails. They have a long curved bill that is perfect to slip inside the shell of the Apple Snail and cut the soft body free from the shell. But this unique shaped bill also means they have troubles eating other things. Once, about 10 years ago, I was in a boat photographing Snail Kites near the Everglades and found a Snail Kite that had caught and was eating a small turtle. This is highly unusual but I suppose the snail and the turtle are similar enough for the kite to take advantage of the food source. Perhaps this is showing some adaptation on the part of the kite to expand its food base.

One morning I was checking on a family of Sandhill Cranes when I came across a male Snail Kite that was hunting for Apple Snails along a freshwater channel. He was perched in a small tree. So I grabbed my photo gear and set up nearby waiting to see what he would do.

It didn't take long before he launched off the tree. Fortunately I was pre-focused and when he started to fly off, I captured a series of stunning images that highlighted the beauty of this species specific raptor.

The Snail Kite flew slowly down over the shallow channel looking down into the water. When he spotted a snail he quickly turned in mid-air and swooped down to the water's surface. While pumping he wings hard to hover, he reached into the water with his long feet and toes and plucked out two snails at the same time. Once the snails were secured, a few strong wing beats lifted the kite up and away.

He wasted no time in flying right to one of his favorite feeding perches. Once landed it takes only a few swipes of the bill inside the shell of the snail before he extracted all of the meat within. The shell is immediately dropped and the soft body of the snail is torn up and eaten bite by bite.

Once the kite left the perch, I walked over to examine the discarded shells beneath the perch. What I found was a pile of old sun bleached shells along with several new brightly colored shells. Some snail shells were small and some large but all were very interesting and told the history of what this bird was hunting and eating.

I find these species specific birds to be most fascinating. They seem to be balancing on a knives edge in terms of their dependency on a very specific habitat and food. Of course, we people are the ones who are changing the habitats by draining wetlands, digging ditches which drains water away from wetlands, installing drain tile, filling in wetlands for housing and so much more. These kinds of actions take a toll on the species specific critters such as the amazing Snail Kite. Until next time...

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.


Photo by Stan Tekiela

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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