Editorial

Bird Species Spotlight: Snail Kites and Apple Snails

by Jake Jacoby | February 16, 2020

© Jake Jacoby

The snail kite is classified as “molluscivore” which is an animal that has a specialized diet of snails. Occasionally they also eat rodents, crayfish, crabs and turtles, but usually this is when snails are in short supply.

Snail kites now dine almost exclusively on apple snails which are a freshwater invasive species and are a very interesting animal in their own right. These snails lay their eggs out of the water to protect them from fish and other water predators. I think that one of the most interesting aspects of the apple snail is that they have both a gill and a lung, with the mantle cavity being divided in order to separate the two types of respiratory structures. They have a system comparable to the gills of a fish on their right side in order to breathe underwater, as well as a lung on the left side to respirate air. Unlike other snails, both a male and a female apple snail are needed for reproduction.

Male snail kite © Jake Jacoby

Male snail kite © Jake Jacoby

Apple Snails © Jake Jacoby

Apple Snails © Jake Jacoby

Apple Snail Eggs © Jake Jacoby

Apple Snail Eggs © Jake Jacoby

The snail kite is a hawk-sized bird of prey and belongs to the family of hawks. They are found in the southern parts of Florida, in the Caribbean, and in the tropical parts of South America. Snail kites are found in freshwater wetlands, marshes, and edges of lakes where apple snails are also found.

Snail kites have red eyes, a deeply curved beak, long red or orange-colored legs and an elongated tail with a white rump. They have a wing span of 4-feet. They always fly with their head pointing down which enables them to locate a snail prey.

Female snail kite © Jake Jacoby

Female snail kite © Jake Jacoby

Snail kites do not plunge into the water to capture snails and never use the bill to capture their prey. Instead, they use their feet to capture snails at or below the surface of the water. Once the snail is caught, the kite uses its sharp bill to remove the pellicle (membrane over the snail) and then extract the snail from the shell. They can even extract the snail meat while in flight.

Male with Apple Snail © Jake Jacoby

Male with Apple Snail © Jake Jacoby

Snail kites mate in Florida between February and July. Males will provide the food and building material for the nest as part of their courtship ritual. The female will lay 1 to 4 white-brownish eggs which hatch after an incubation period of 26 to 28 days. Both parents participate in the incubation and rearing of the chicks. Chicks normally fledge at 6 to 7 weeks. It usually takes several weeks for the juveniles to learn the art of extracting the Apple Snail from its shell. The young birds reach sexual maturity at the age of 12 months.

About the Author

To see more of Jake's work as well as his favorite photographs check out his Flickr page.

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