[order] ACCIPITRIFORMES | [family] Accipitridae | [latin] Elanus axillaris | [UK] Australian Black-shouldered Kite | [FR] Elanion d'Australie | [DE] Australischer Gleitaar | [ES] Elanio australiano | [NL] Australische Grijze Wouw | [Authority] Latham, 1802

Australian Black-shouldered Kite determination

Members of the genus Elanus are rather small kites. Their wings are long and pointed, the tail double rounded. They have small bills and feet, and are generally grey and white with varying amounts of black on the shoulders. The genus is cosmopolitan, but favours tropical or sub-tropical climes. Only in Australia do two species of this genus co-exist, both of which are unique to that continent, although one - the Australian Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus notatus) is closely related to, and may be a race of the Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus Caeruleus).

copyright: Philip Griffin

Black-Shouldered Kites are around 35 to 38 cm in length and have a wingspan of between 80 and 95 cm. Adults are a very pale grey with a white head and white underparts. The leading edge of the inner wing is black. When perched, this gives them their prominent black "shoulders".

Although also found in timbered country, they are mainly birds of the grasslands. European occupation of Australia has, on the whole, benefited them by clearing vast expanses of forest for agriculture and providing suitable conditions for much larger numbers of mice.

Black-shouldered Kites live almost exclusively on mice. They take other suitably-sized creatures when available, including grasshoppers, rats, small reptiles, birds, and even (very rarely) rabbits, but mice and other mouse-sized mammals account for over 90% of their diet. Their influence on mouse populations is probably significant: adults take two or three mice a day each if they can, and on one occasion a male was observed bringing no less than 14 mice to a nest of well-advanced fledglings within an hour. Like other elanid kites, Black-shouldered Kites hunt by quartering grasslands for small creatures. This can be from a perch (usually a dead tree), but more often by hovering in mid-air with conspicuous skill and little apparent effort. Typically, a kite will hover 10 to 30 metres above a particular spot, peering down intently, sometimes for only a few seconds, often for a minute or more, then glide swiftly to a new vantage point and hover again. When a mouse or other prey is spotted, the kite drops silently onto it, feet-first with wings raised high; sometimes in one long drop to ground level, more often in two or more stages, with hovering pauses at intermediate heights. About two-thirds of attacks are successful. Prey can either be eaten in flight or carried back to a perch

This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern

The Black-shouldered Kite was first described by English ornithologist John Latham in 1802, as Falco axillaris. Its specific name is derived from the Latin axilla "shoulder". The name "Black-shouldered Kite" was formerly used for a Eurasian and African species, Elanus caeruleus, and the Australian bird and the North American species, the White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus, were treated as subspecies of this. The three Elanus species have comparable plumage patterns and sizes, however, they are now regarded as distinct, and the name Black-winged Kite is used for E. caeruleus. Modern references to the Black-shouldered Kite should therefore unambiguously mean the Australian species, E. axillaris. The Australian Black-shouldered Kite was formerly called E. notatus, but it was not clear that the name applied to this species alone.

Black-shouldered Kites form monogamous pairs, breeding between August and January. The birds engage in aerial courtship displays which involve high circling flight and ritualised feeding mid-air. Three or four eggs are laid and incubated for around thirty days. Chicks are fully fledged within five weeks of hatching and can hunt for mice within a week of leaving the nest. Juveniles disperse widely from the home territory

Resident populations in temperate coastal lowlands; others dispersive, partly migratory and irruptive in response to plagues of prey. Irregular in semi-arid zone; regular wintering on coast.

Range: Australasia, Australia. Black-shoulderd Kites have been reported from all parts of mainland Australia, but are most common in the south and east, in the south-west corner of Western Australia, and in the far north-west. They are rare in the deep desert and appear to be only accidental visitors to northern Tasmania and the Torres Strait islands.