High among the branches of pines in southeast Georgia, the lifeless eyes of strategically placed swallow-tailed kite decoys stare at the world, eyeing platforms for artificial nests that biologists hope will soon lure the state-listed kites.
Based on research on establishing post-breeding roosts in Florida, Tim Keyes of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources thinks the decoys and platforms may attract swallow-tailed kites to nest on state lands.
Most kite nests in Georgia have been recorded on private lands.
“While we have had excellent working relationships with many private land owners, we have also lost some important nesting habitat on private lands,” said Keyes, a wildlife biologist with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section. “The goal of this project is to determine whether we can establish nesting sites on state lands where we can actively protect and manage for them.”
Keyes and tree climbers from Avian Research and Conservation Institute, or ARCI, carefully picked five sites, then added nest platforms and mounted three decoys for each site in nearby trees. The decoys are actually repainted crow decoys with the kites’ distinguishing scissor-like tails added.
Artificial nesting platforms have been used only once before in Georgia, and with limited success. In 2008, one nest was recorded at an artificial nest site.
“Kites appear to have plenty of suitable habitat along the lower reaches of our large rivers, but they seem reluctant to expand into new areas, often using the same nesting clusters year after year,” Keyes said.
“Based on their social nature (the birds nest in small clusters of two to three pairs), we hope to attract birds to new nesting sites with the decoys.”
Swallow-tailed kites breed between late March and July, so the season is in full swing and 29 nests have been confirmed. Most of these nests were spotted during surveys by helicopter. Researchers will survey nests from the ground and air, monitoring sites and nesting success, twice a week through the nesting season.
Although the swallow-tailed kite has no federal status under the Endangered Species Act, it is listed as rare in Georgia. Populations appear stable but not increasing, with about 1,200 breeding pairs in the U.S. Approximately 100 pairs breed in Georgia.
“After fledging, kites form post-breeding groups which are important to document for population estimates. In Florida, these groups can be as large as 2,000 birds, but the largest roost found in Georgia was 100 birds, with 15 to 30 birds more typical,” Keyes explained.
“Here in Georgia we see smaller groups and they move around from one day to the next, maybe 100 birds but usually more like 20 to 30 birds, and we don’t know why. There is still a lot we don’t know about these birds.”
Once these roosts break up, the kites start their arduous southbound migration to southern Brazil.
The best places to see a swallow-tailed kite in Georgia are near any of the large rivers in the lower Coastal Plain, such as the Satilla, Altamaha, Ogeechee or Savannah. One of the best times to see the birds is in late summer when they regularly feed over open fields with Mississippi kites, and often ranging well into the Piedmont region.
Georgians can help conserve swallow-tailed kites and other animals not legally hunted, fished for or trapped, as well as native plants and habitats, through buying wildlife license plates featuring a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird. They can also donate to the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund state income tax checkoff. Both programs are vital to the Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state funds.
Visit www.georgiawildlife.com for more information, or call Nongame Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth (478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).