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Snail Kites

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

May 30, 2022

It seems like there are as many different strategies employed for a bird’s survival as there are species of bird. Think about all the different ways and things a bird must do just to survive. These include a wide range of nesting strategies and feeding strategies. This fact was glaringly obvious last week while I was photographing the Federally Endangered species the Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabillis) in southwest Florida.

I was in Florida to lead a bird photo tour and give a few presentations for Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Each morning I would get up early and head out to get into place to photograph a small colony of Snail Kites right at sunrise. The warm and moist mornings where such a nice change from the cold and windy mornings back in my northern home.

Kites are a group of raptors that are considered aerial specialists, hunting and drinking on the wing. The have a unique buoyant flight that makes them easy to spot from a distance. We have five kite species found in the United States. All these kites are found in the southern states except for the White-tailed Kite which is found along the west coast.

Most of the kites are considered a food specialist, which means they only eat a specific type or kind of food. For the Snail Kite, their main diet are snails. Apple Snails, which are a large mollusk found in fresh water in warm climates make up the majority of their diet. These snails are huge and can grow upwards of three inches across.

It is estimated that there are only 400 breeding pairs, or about 1,000 individual Snail Kites (some are not breeding age yet) in the United States. All of these birds are located in southern Florida. Since they are tied nearly exclusively to eating snails (food specialists) they really have no way of expanding their range. They can only occur where snails are large and plentiful enough to support a large raptor.

Their Genus name, Rostrhamus is Latin for “hooked beak”, from rostrum (the beak) and hamus (a hook) perfectly describes their long, slender, hooked beak. This highly adapted beak allows the kite to reach inside and cut the snail free from the shell, without damaging the shell. It takes only a minute or two to successfully remove the snail from the shell.

Snail Kites hunt by flying low over shallow water wetlands while looking down and scanning the water. When they spot a snail, they turn abruptly and swoop down and dip their feet, with long sharp talons, into the water and grab the snail. They often fly to a well-used and familiar perch where they extract the snail and drop the shell. I spent some time investigating several of these perches and found dozens of large empty snail shells piled up at the base.

While being a food specialist is something that has worked for the Snail Kite, it is also a very risky and dangerous strategy for long term survival. For example, what happens if a disease wipes out the snail population or a long-term drought causes the wetlands that are home to the snails to dry up. In addition, as wetlands are drained for farming and housing development the Snail Kite has no alternative habitat in which to relocate. As you can see, being dependent upon just one food source is very risky.

It’s easy to tell the difference between the males and females. The males are a uniform blue/gray color with a bright red eye. The females are brown with a speckled chest. At times when the male would grab a snail another kite would try to steal it away which lead to spectacular areal battles. Seeing these mid-air interactions were always a thrill. But capturing images of the kite snatching a large snail from the water was my ultimate goal. I spent many mornings standing at the edge of the marsh waiting for a Snail Kite to fly by and swoop down for a snail. On three occasions I was lucky enough to capture some decent images of this endangered species clinging to survival one snail at a time. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study can capture images of wildlife. He can be followed at Instagram.com, Facebook.com and Twitter.com. He can be contacted via his website at naturesmart.com.


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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