Florida Snail Kite: Rostrhamus sociabilis
Male and Female Snail Kite
Look for a medium-sized bird of prey - males are uniformly dark gray; females and juveniles are brownish with a streaked breast and light eyebrow and cheek patch. All snail kites have a distinctive white patch at the base of the tail, ending in a dark band with a narrow white edge.
Historically, snail kites were found from the Everglades to just southeast of Tallahassee, but wetland drainage and development eliminated or altered its shallow freshwater foraging habitat
Generally, the species is somewhat nomadic, moving from wetland to wetland in search of snails, but they are regularly seen in the marshes associated with lakes Kissimmee, Okeechobee and Tohopekaliga, at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, water conservation areas (Everglades), and even along stretches of the Tamiami Trail.
The Florida snail kite is aptly named - it feeds almost exclusively on apple snails and, in the United States, is found only in Florida.
The species was listed as endangered in 1967. Today, the population is considered to be stable, but extremely vulnerable to the stresses of habitat loss, prolonged droughts and anything that affects the availability of apple snails, its primary food.
Snail kites breed from December to August and lay an average of three eggs in bulky nests built in a variety of wetland trees, shrubs and emergent vegetation. During the nesting season, the birds are usually found singly or in pairs; in winter, they often roost together in communal groups.
Lucky observers will witness the snail kite in action, as it searches for its prey by flying low over shallow freshwater marshes scattered with shrubs and trees. When it spots a snail, it swoops down, extends its legs into the water and briefly hovers while it grasps the snail with its talons. While still in flight or after landing on a nearby perch, the kite uses its thin, hooked bill to pull the snail from its shell.
Living with Snail Kites
Image Credit: FWC - Ron Bielefeld