During July and early August a large brown bird appears in the skies over southern Africa, preferring the wetter parts of the region and avoiding only the dry Kalahari and Namib Deserts. Visiting southern Africa for the summer breeding season from its winter haunts further north, in equatorial Africa, this is the magnificent Yellow-billed kite.
A fairly large bird, about 55 cm in length and with a wingspan approaching one and a half metres, the Yellow-billed kite is an impressive specimen. Its plumage is brown overall, and, as its name implies, it has a distinctive yellow bill, which, together with its slightly forked tail, is diagnostic. The unfeathered legs and the feet are yellow and the eyes are brown. When in flight the bird is fascinating to watch as it used its tail as a very active rudder to guide its buoyant flight, suspended on long wings that are angled backwards and the yellow bill and legs quite visible. The sexes are alike in plumage, but the females are slightly larger than the males.
The Yellow-billed kite is found singly or in pairs while breeding but is otherwise quite gregarious and we have seen quite large flocks gathering at termite emergences in northern Namibia, most of the birds on the ground and some flying in tight patterns to gather the few termites that managed to take to flight. The kites are also often seen in the quieter roadways, where they feed on the unfortunate animals that fall victim to the occasional passing cars and trucks. More naturally, the kites feed on insects, small mammals and just about any animal material that they can find.
Yellow-billed kites are not noisy birds and are usually silent, uttering a “quill-err” most commonly during the breeding season.
The kites are monogamous and during the breeding season they build a bowl-shaped nest of sticks in the canopy of a suitable tree, lining it with dung, wool and any other bits of soft material that can be found. The nests are usually well concealed in the thick foliage. The female lays a clutch of two or three white eggs that are marked with brown, and that hatch after an incubation period of about 35 days.
The scientific binomial for the Yellow-billed kite is Milvus aegyptius; Milvus from the Latin for a kite and aegyptius from the Latin for “of Egypt”. Thus a kite from Egypt, which is accurate enough, although somewhat limiting for a bird that is found throughout Africa.