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6

Letter-winged Kite

(Elanus scriptus)
Size: 30-36 cm; wing span 85-100 cm
Weight: 280-300 g

Similar
species

Description     Classification     Distribution     Sightings     Photos     Breeding     Nest     Eggs     Behaviour     Food     Call/s

Physical description

Click here for a physical description

Taxonomy, classification

See Letter-winged Kite at Wikipedia .

Range, habitat, finding this species

Click here for information on habitat and range

Sightings

Click here for sighting information

Photos

ADULT

PAIR

Lateral view of a pair of Letter-winged Kites (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Lateral view of a pair of Letter-winged Kites, one now issuing alarm calls (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Sex unknown

Near-frontal view of an adult Letter-winged Kite (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Close-up lateral view of a Letter-winged Kite (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Close-up lateral view of a Letter-winged Kite staring down the observer
(photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Near-dorsal view of a Letter-winged Kite perched on a tree top (photo courtesy of M. Mearns)
[Diamantina NP, QLD, August 2019]

Direct comparison between a Black-shouldered Kite, left, and a Letter-winged Kite, right - note the differences in the black eye patch and the colour of the legs/feet; the difference in the appearance of the upperwing patch may be a projection effect
(photos courtesy of M. Mearns)
[Diamantina NP, QLD, August 2019]

Near-lateral view of a Letter-winged Kite in flight (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Lateral view of a Letter-winged Kite in flight being harassed by a Torresian Crow (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Lateral/ventral view of a Letter-winged Kite in flight (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Near-dorsal/ventral view of a Letter-winged Kite in flight (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Dorsal view of a Letter-winged Kite in flight (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Dorsal/ventral view of a Letter-winged Kite in flight (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

IMMATURE/JUVENILE

Close-up lateral view of a sub-adult Letter-winged Kite - note the rufous wash on the upperparts; the streaking on the forehead may be blood; although this bird does not have "typical" adult plumage yet, it was one in a mated pair, see photos above (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Close-up lateral view of a sub-adult Letter-winged Kite (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Close-up lateral view of a sub-adult Letter-winged Kite issuing its call (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Dorsal view of a sub-adult Letter-winged Kite (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Breeding information

Breeding season: (after rain) Eggs: 3 - 6 Incubation period: 25 - 36 days Fledging age: 30 - 35 days

Nest building: ? Incubation: Female Dependent care: Female & male

Letter-winged Kites are specialists for living in the Red Centre of the Australian continent. As such, they do not have a seasonal breeding cycle, like all other species, but are purely opportunistic breeders based on when prey (Long-haired Rat) is abundant. Once conditions are good, 2-50 pairs can breed semi-colonially. They can have up to several broods in a row, building a new nest for each (because of the danger of parasites taking a hold).

Twitcher's tip

Note that, by the time they fledge (i.e., leave their nest), the young of all species of raptors - apart from the tail and wing feathers (which are still growing) - are already full adult-size.

Nest

"bungobittah", "lar", "malunna", "jindi" [bundjalung] = nest [Aboriginal]

Type: Basket Material: Sticks; green leaves Height above ground: 5? - 20? m

Nests are usually built high up in the canopy of a live tree, often in Beefwood (Grevillea striata).

One of two Letter-winged Kite nests in the top of a live tree (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Second of two Letter-winged Kite nests in the top of a live tree (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Overview of the location of a Letter-winged Kite nest (photo courtesy of M. Eaton)
[Strzelecki Track, 20 km N of Montecollina Bore, SA, June 2022]

Eggs

"boyanga", "booyanga", "derinya", "dirandil", "koomura", "mirk", "ngampu", "nooluk", "pateena", "pum-pum" = Egg; "dirundirri" = eggs [Aboriginal]; "gawu" = eggs [gamilaraay]

Size: 42 x 32 mm Colour: Creamy, with very dense dark-brown speckles Shape: Tapered oval

Behaviour

The Letter-winged Kite is special, because it is the only fully nocturnal raptor from the hawk family (i.e. not related to the owls, nightjars or frogmouths.

Letter-winged Kites are also special because highly reliant on the Long-haired Rat (Rattus villosissimus) for food. This is the reason for the species' eruptive behaviour, when breeding up and following their prey. The core range of the Long-haired Rat extends throughout western QLD into the NT and eastern SA and, to a lesser degree, to far-western NSW. The Letter-winged Kite's core range is western QLD, primarily around Mt. Isa, extending into the NT, eastern SA and western NSW depending on the availability of prey. Usually, both species find times of plenty after significant inland rain events.

Food, Diet

Adults: Long-haired Rats Dependents: As adults Water intake: None

All raptors are carnivores. Letter-winged Kites have a strong preference for Long-haired Rats, Rattus velocissimus.

During the first few weeks, raptors feed their chicks with pieces of meat. Later on in their development, the chicks learn to tear apart their parents' prey.

Call(s)/Song

For this species we have recorded the following call(s)/song. The interpretation of their meaning is our own; comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.

letkite_me_20220610.m4a (NE SA) Alarm calls (humans near nest) © ME

More Letter-winged Kite sound recordings are available at xeno-canto.org .

These pages are largely based on our own observations and those of our contributors. The structure of these bird pages is explained HERE. For more salient facts on any bird species please refer to a field guide.

Would you like to contribute photos or sound recordings to this site?
If interested, please CLICK HERE. Credits to contributors are given HERE.