Welcome to the first installment of “The Coolest Birds.” When I launched Paste Magazine with friends back in 2002, it was about our collective passion—for music, film, books and culture. As we’ve added to our passions, Paste has been that outlet to talk about everything from great craft beer and whisky to travel destinations we’ve loved. And in this last year and a half of being at home and finding places to explore while staying socially distant to people, I’ve developed a passion for the abundant nature around Atlanta. I’ve realized lately that I have a lot of “favorite birds,” often depending on what I’ve just witnessed out in the woods. In this column, I’ll try to express what makes these avian creatures so spectacularly interesting.
Some birds are notoriously hard to identify, even if you’ve learned all their markings and listened intently to their calls. The various species of sparrows, for example, can be tough to distinguish from each other. But the first time I saw a Swallow-tailed Kite, I knew I’d just seen a Swallow-tailed Kite.
Back in April, I was visiting family in South Carolina, and my brother and I spent an afternoon walking around the Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve. We were hoping to see the endangered Gopher Tortoises or Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and we weren’t having any luck with either. But as we headed back toward our car, four black-and-white raptors with distinctive forked tails came soaring over the tree line, circling in the distance, occasionally changing directions and skimming the tops of the tall pines. They’re shockingly agile for such large animals.
Slender birds with wingspans reaching four feet across, kites spend most of the day in the air, catching their prey on the wing. They kettle in small flocks, hunting insects and small vertebrates. Their swallow-like tails twist opposite their wings for acrobatic maneuvers in the air that are thrilling to witness. Once they’ve caught something in their talons, they eat it while still in flight, tucking their heads down and quickly getting back to the hunt.
The birds can be found year-round in South America, but some migrate north to Florida and the southern U.S. coastal plains along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean in the spring to breed. Last month, I was surprised to hear that a mixed kettle of Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites had been spotted near Covington, Ga.—just east of the Metro Atlanta area, and only 40 minutes from my house. Someone had also seen a rare-for-Georgia Scissor-tailed Flycatcher nearby, so I decided to make the drive. Once again, I missed out on the flycatcher, but caught a glimpse of some Swallow-tailed Kites high above the fields. Two weeks later, I saw another mixed flock of kites and vultures at Lyons Farm near Stonecrest, even nearer to the city. But it was last weekend when I got much closer looks and determined that yes, Swallow-tailed Kites are the coolest birds.
I’d returned to the fields next to a tiny pond at the Pony Express Farm, and this time, the large birds of prey put on an aerial show to rival the Blue Angels. As I walked to the outer fence of the farm, swarms of grasshoppers jumped out of my way with every step. The abundant insects provided a feast for 11 Swallow-tailed Kites who circled high and then swooped low, snatching grasshoppers out of the tall grasses and munching on them while they lazily glided back above the fields. Sometimes they would be trailing strands of grass they grabbed alongside their morsels.
I watched mesmerized, snapping photos for nearly an hour as they picked off bug after bug, circling closer to my spot at the fence until they came directly overhead. The white plumage on their heads and undersides contrasts starkly with their black backs and the outer feathers on their tails and wings. Their swallow-like tails constantly change shape, spread wide as they soar, a narrow V as they dart, twisting to one side and then the other as they bank and respond to the wind. They can even dive backwards to catch prey behind them. The dragonflies and other winged insects buzzing over the grasses didn’t stand a chance. Nor do the tree frogs, anoles, snakes or even nesting birds they tend to hunt when they have their own nestlings to feed. They’ve even been known to catch bats out of the air or bring entire wasp nests back to their young, ignoring the stings of the adults while they feed the larvae to their chicks.
Swallow-tailed kites are social birds, and breeding pairs will often nest near one another with both members of the generally monogamous couple helping to gather sticks and mosses and build the nest high up in the trees. They’ll also roost in groups that can reach into the hundreds just before they migrate.
Once these birds could be found breeding as far north as Minnesota, but habitat loss and other human-caused factors have seen their populations dwindle. If you have an opportunity to visit any of the areas where they continue to breed in the summer—or to most of South America throughout the year—look up to the skies. You might catch a glimpse of the coolest bird.
Josh Jackson co-founded Paste Magazine in 2002, where he serves as president and editor-in-chief. Follow him on Twitter at @joshjackson or his bird photography @BirdsAtl on Twitter and atl_birds on Instagram