Bird of the week – Week 51: Yellow-billed kite

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.

2 thoughts on “Bird of the week – Week 51: Yellow-billed kite

  1. Linda Mc Gregor

     For many years I had seen Yellow bill kites flying over our home in Umhlanga KZN.
    A few years ago afetr a terrible storm and I was checking out the damage to our garden when I saw a bedraggled kite sitting on a dead tree at the bottom of our garden.  
    Even though I approached it, just sat there and did not fly away.  I became concerned that perhaps it was injured, so spoke to it gently, and left a free range chicken drumstick on the rail of our wooden deck.
    The next day the drumstick was missing, but I was not sure if my dogs or the kite had taken it.
    Over the next few weeks I kept noticing a kite flying over our house, so put out another drumstick, and sure enough that also disappeared.
    I did not want to make a wild bird dependent on me, but as I had seen a few dead kites on the road, felt it better it get its ‘occasional’ treat from me than a dead rat of the road and possible death, so continued putting out a drumstick whenever the kite ‘called’, by flying over our house giving a shrill cry, this being perhaps once a week.
    This continued for years, each year the kites leaving in March and returning in August.
    Whenever it, or they returned, (I was not sure if it was one or a few different kites), it seemed to be with great rejoicing on both their and my part, with me welcoming the kite with a drumstick.
    One day as I was placing the drumstick on a high wall, out of reach of the dogs, the kite swooped down and took the drumstick out of my hand.
    After that I would, put the meat down and stand close by as she took it and eventually she took it from my hand.
    The first time I named a kite was in 2009, calling her Avatar.
    I could stand on my deck and see her flying in the distance, lift my arms and call “Avatar” in a high pitched call, and she would change direction, flying straight towards me, often landing in a nearby tree. She would sit in a giant milk-wood tree, with me standing beneath her doing baby-talk, her bending her neck to make eye-contact with me, often yawning as horses do, and preening excessively when I got all gootchi goo with her. 
    Then around December 2009 she was away for a few days and I got quite worried, always fearing her ending up as ‘road-kill’, when on a lovely summers day we heard a lot of screeching and carrying on.  Rushing outside I saw her flying with another kite, eventually discovering that it was her baby who she was introducing to me.  The babies have dark tips to their beaks.
    She slowly coaxed her baby, who I called ‘Little Raptor’, to sit in the milk wood tree with her.
    Little Raptor was so cute, she would beg food from her mother, and if Avator was not there, she would beg the local Hadidas for food.  The Hadida looking at her as if confused. 
    On a specific day, to my delight, in the giant milk wood there was, Little Raptor, a Falcon and a Knysna Lourie. 
    Avatar and Little Raptor left together in March of 2010, both coming back in August 2010, but then Avatar left and only little Raptor stayed, eventually bringing her own baby, who I named Shilo, to meet us, they both left in March 2011.
    They all look slightly different, Avatar is a duller brown, compares to Little Raptor’s almost yellow brown, and Shilo is smaller, (probably a male), and more Avatar’s color.
    Sometimes other kites harass them, and they fly close to me or sit panting in the milk-wood as I stand on our deck waving my arms to scare away the intruders.
    Each year my life is filled with joy when they return, saddened and stressed when they leave, and I wait in anticipation for their safe return.
    I know I have not interfered with their ability to hunt as I have seen them take other birds in flight, eating them within meters of me.
    Many will say I am interfering with nature, and mostly I feel that way myself, but then I always make the excuse that rather they get the occasional treat, supplement to their diet from me than the N2. 
    Linda Mc Gregor
    Umhlanga
    KZN

    Reply
    1. Gail Botha

      Hi Linda – I am so happy to find another yellow billed kite lover.  I have read your e-mail and cannot believe how much alike we as far as this wonderful bird is concerned.  I just cannot believe just how intelligent they are.
      I have called my fellow, Nelson. I started feeding him last year.  I was also a bit  worried and concerned when he left as I thought I had done the wrong thing by feeding him. I was imagining him starving cause he had gotten used to the feeds every morning.  Boy was I surprised this August when he flew over again – I gave such a loud scream my husband thought someone had broken into our home. There I was running around, diving into the freezer for any chicken piece that I could find! My husband thinks I’m crazy the way I whistle and baby talk to Nelson.
      I have watched how this beautiful bird moves his head back and forth when he is ready for is feed – I swear he understands me.
      Nelson gets two chicken legs in the morning, the rest of the day he flies around and I am pretty sure that he gets scraps from the other residents living in the area.
      What a magnificent bird. 
      “Wherever you go, go with your heart”
      Gail Botha
      New Germany
      KZN

      Reply

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