The body has a sharply contrasting black and white pattern, with the tail, back, and flight feathers being black, and the underside of the body and head being white. The bill, eyes, legs, and feet are charcoal to black. 58 cm (23 in) in length; 122 cm (48 in) wing span. The forked tail is a defining characteristic of this species. The adults have a longer tail than younger birds, and birds' ages can be determined according to this feature when numerous Swallow-tailed Kites are at migration roosts.
The nesting season runs from mid-March, peaks in April, and ends in mid-May. The nest is built near water in large trees, usually pines. The nest is 60-130 feet high in the treetops. Both the male and female participate in nest building, using sticks, twigs, and other materials. The nest is platform-style and lined with fine materials. The female lays 2-4 (usually 2) eggs that are incubated by both adults for 28 days. The young are semi-altricial and tended by both adults for 36-42 days after hatching.
The Swallow-tailed Kite occurs primarily in swamps and forested wetlands, usually near nesting sites. It feeds on insects, reptiles, and amphibians. It forages by gliding in the air and catching insects, and also by taking reptiles and amphibians off of the ground or from plants. The Swallow-tailed Kite drinks by skimming the surface of water, gathering the water in its bill. This species migrates over long distances.
The breeding range includes the Coastal Plains of the Southeast. The majority of the breeding population occurs in Florida, but some breeding individuals are seen in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Swallow-tailed Kite winters in South America.
This species is considered of special concern throughout the Southeast. It is listed as Endangered in South Carolina, and Threatened in Texas. Drainage of wetlands, land use changes, and shooting have been responsible for the decline of this species.
With its distinctive tail, the Swallow-tailed Kite is readily identified if seen clearly, although from great distances identification becomes more difficult.