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Species Guide

Letter-winged Kite

Elanus scriptus

The letter-winged kite, Elanus scriptus, is a small raptor native to Australia, notable for its pale grey and white plumage and the distinctive black 'M' or 'W' shaped pattern under its wings. Adults measure approximately 35 cm in length with a wingspan ranging from 84 to 100 cm. The species is unique among its relatives for being nocturnal.

Identification Tips

When identifying the letter-winged kite, look for the black rings around its red eyes and the black shoulder patches on its wings. In flight, the characteristic 'M' or 'W' pattern is visible on the underside of its wings. The female may be distinguished by a greyer crown and slightly darker grey plumage.


This kite favors arid and semi-arid open landscapes, including shrubby or grassy terrains across the interior of Australia.


The letter-winged kite is found throughout the southern Northern Territory, northeastern South Australia, and Queensland. Its presence is heavily dependent on food availability, leading to fluctuations in its range.


The letter-winged kite is a nocturnal hunter, roosting in well-foliaged trees during the day and emerging at dusk. It is known to roost and breed communally, with colonies sometimes numbering up to 400 individuals.

Song & Calls

When in groups, the letter-winged kite can be quite vocal, especially at night. Its calls include chicken-like chirping, a loud kacking, and a rasping contact call between mated pairs.


Breeding is closely tied to rodent population surges, with the kite nesting in colonies of up to 50 pairs. The nests are large, untidy cups of sticks, lined with green leaves. Clutches typically consist of three to four dull white eggs with red-brown blotches.

Similar Species

The black-shouldered kite (Elanus axillaris) is similar in appearance but is diurnal and lacks the distinctive underwing pattern of the letter-winged kite.

Diet and Feeding

The letter-winged kite predominantly preys on rodents, particularly the long-haired rat, by hovering above grasslands and fields at night. Its diet can also include other small mammals and insects.

Conservation status

The letter-winged kite is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN. Its population is estimated to be as low as 1,000 individuals between irruptions, and its conservation status is complicated by its population fluctuations.

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Letter-winged Kites on Birda

A map showing the sighting location
Richard Floyd
06 May 2024 - 9:06pm

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