Shot down

Swallow tailed-kite on glove
Swallow tailed-kite on glove

At least once every day, I swear off Facebook and threaten to cancel my subscription to the newspaper.  I really wish I could hide my head in the sand and not be tormented by the headlines:  Woman beats her dog to death because she didn’t want to traumatize it by taking it to the veterinarian.  Some of the headlines are profound:  We are a deeply stupid country.  Some are just amusing:  A joint committee of lawmakers is reviewing funding for medical marijuana regulations.

Here at Peace River Wildlife Center, we try to keep our heads down and focus on our mission to help injured, ill, and orphaned native Florida wildlife.  While our primary goal is to get the healthy individuals back out into the wild where they belong, occasionally that proves impossible.

Swallow-tailed kite x-ray
Swallow-tailed kite x-ray

We recently treated a swallow-tailed kite that had been found on the ground.  Transported to us by Charlotte County Animal Control, the bird seemed unwilling or unable to fully extend one wing.  Examinations and x-rays showed that it had been shot with a pellet gun, resulting in soft tissue injury and joint damage.  The bird will never fly again.

Since the bird is a juvenile, it’s a good candidate for permanent placement as an education ambassador.  Unfortunately, PRWC doesn’t have the room to keep this kite— but we were able to find it a great home.  The bird will be on display at Flamingo Gardens in Davie, Florida in their enviable outdoor aviary.  I highly recommend it as a day trip.

Swallow-tailed kites are unique raptors with slim bodies and long wings.  Their heads and underparts are white, while their wings, backs, and tails are black.  Usually seen only from a distance as they soar high overhead, their wingspan is four feet and they up to two feet in length.  They spend most of their days in the air, roosting only at night, but they seldom flap their wings.  Instead they continuously rotate their deeply-forked tails, up to 90 degrees, allowing them to hold a heading into the wind, turn abruptly, or circle tightly.

The adult bird’s diet primarily consists of flying insects, which are caught by the feet, transferred to the mouth in midair, and eaten without landing.  While raising young, the adults will add frogs, lizards, snakes, and nestling birds to the menu.  They will snatch these tasty morsels while flying, transfer to their bills just before landing, then pass to their mate or offspring on the nest.

Kite’s stomachs are thicker and spongier than other raptors, allowing them to eat wasps and fire ants.  They will sometimes take an entire colony to their chicks, eating the larvae, and incorporating the insects’ nests into their own nest.

Swallow-tails used to be found along the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Florida, but now breed only in southeastern United States—primarily in Florida.  After raising their young, they migrate to South America for the winter.  It is estimated that there are 800 to 1,150 pairs left in this country.  While they are not listed as a threatened species, their numbers and range are diminishing at an alarming rate.

The biggest threat to them used to be from hunting, which is now illegal and has been greatly reduced in recent years.  Unfortunately for our patient, some dingus didn’t get that memo.  How or why anyone could shoot such a magnificent bird out of the sky is beyond comprehension.  I guess some of us are intent on proving we truly are a stupid country.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM

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