Status: Lower risk
Population Trend: Stable.
Other Names: Red-backed Kite, Rufous Eagle, Rufous-backed Kite, White-headed Fish Eagle, White-headed Kite, White-headed Sea-eagle.
Distribution: Australasian/Indomalayan/Palearctic. Indian subcontinent (except for dry northwest) to southern CHINA south through Southeast Asia, Malay Peninsula, PHILIPPINES, SULAWESI, SOLOMON ISLANDS, SUNDAS, and NEW GUINEA to AUSTRALIA.
Additional details on Distribution:
United Arab Emirates: Single birds recorded in April and October 1986 and two from December 1986 to the end of January 1987 in Dubai were possibly of captive origin (Richardson 1990).
Nepal: Uncommon resident, occurring most frequently in the eastern lowlands up to about 360 m, sometime higher (Kathmandu Valley and Pokhara), especially in summer. Local movements in response to changing water conditions (Inskipp and Inskipp 1991).
Bhutan: Rare resident, confined to border areas (Samtse District) (Spierenburg 2005).
Tibet: Ludlow (1950) reported one recorded by Sherriff in March 1945, but it was not found in the Lhasa area by Lang et al. (2007) during winters from 1988 to 2004.
China: Very rare resident in western and southwestern parts of Yunnan Province (Weizhi 2006).
Hong Kong: There are six records, all between 1987 and 1990. Some of these birds may have nested (Carey et al. 2001).
Thailand: The population density is depressed everywhere in Thailand (Wells 1999).
Malay Peninsula: Regular and common resident on mangrove coasts, with the modern center of distribution in Melaka and Johor Straits and associated estuaries south from Penang to Singapore (Wells 1999). Much scarcer along most of the east coast or more than a few kilometers inland from all of the coast and estuaries; a few pairs still occur in greater Kuala Lumpur (Wells op cit.). Although Deignan (1963) recognized the heavily marked indus along the northeastern coast south to Pattani and finer marked intermedius farther south, Wells (op cit.) felt that the great variation in the characters defining the races in peninsular birds made it better to treat the region as an area of integradation between the two forms. Common resident at low elevations in coastal districts and offshore islands south to Singapore. Very common at harbors and fishing villages and occurs in Kuala Lumpur (Jeyarajasingam and Pearson 1999).
Philippines: Common resident (intermedius), usually found in the lowlands, but recorded over 1,500 m above montane forest. Recorded from nearly 60 major islands (Kennedy et al. 2000).
Sumatra: Common resident (intermedius) along coasts and rivers up to about 300 m and also at large inland lakes (van Marle and Voous 1988).
Sumba: Along with the Moluccan Kestrel, this is the most common raptor on Sumba (Olsen and Trost 20076).
Sabah: Probably the commonest raptor in Sabah, resident throughout in open, lower elevational areas from sea level to 1,000 m (Sheldon et al. 2001).
Vanuatu:: Two sight records (Bregulla 1992).
Wallacea: Common resident, ubiquitous in coastal areas, and occurring inland along roads and waterways, around lakes and openings in forest, and occasionally in montane forest. Occurs from sea level to 2,400 (Sulawesi), 1,200 (Seram), 2,400 m (Lombok), 1,000 m (Sumbawa), 1,600 m (Flores), 1,000+ m (Sumba), and 1,100 m (Timor). Two races occur, intermedius in Sulawesi and the islands to the west and south, and girrenera on the Moluccan Islands to the north and east (Coates and Bishop 1997).
Solomon Islands: Common breeding bird throughout the Solomons (Doughty et al. 1999). The endemic race (flavirostris) occurs up to at least 800 m on Bougainville (Hadden 2004). Resident throughout the Solomons, including Buka, Bougainville, Choiseul, Isabel, New Georgia, Guadalcanal, Malaita, Makira, and smaller islands (Steadman 2006).
Vanuatu: Scarce wanderer (Doughty et al. 1999).
Bismarck Archipelago: Resident (girrenera) on all of the larger and many of the lesser islands of the Bismarcks and the Admiralties (Coates 1985, Steadman 2006).
New Guinea: Found throughout the mainland from sea level to 2,300 m and on numerous islands (Coates 1985, Steadman 2006). Widespread and fairly common resident (girrenera) from sea level to 1,800 m, rarely to 2,700 m (Coates 2001).
Australia: Common resident (girrenera) along tropical and warm temperate beaches and estuaries and subcoastal wetlands and offshore islands north of about 28ºS in the east and 22ºS in the west (Olsen 1995). Widespread and common to abundant around the northern Australian coast from about Shark Bay in the west to the Hunter River in the East, with occasional vagrants further south (Debus 1998).
Subspecies: 4 races. H. i. flavirostris: SOLOMON ISLANDS; H. i. girrenera: MOLUCCAS, NEW GUINEA, Bismarck Archipelago, and AUSTRALIA; H. i. indus: PAKISTAN, INDIA, and SRI LANKA through southeastern ASIA to southern CHINA; H. i. intermedius: Malay Peninsula, GREATER and LESSER SUNDAS, SULAWESI, PHILIPPINES, and SULA ISLANDS.
Taxonomy: Placed in the genus Milvus by Amadon (1978), but the molecular studies of Lerner and Mindell (2005) did not support such an arrangement. Instead, this genus appears to share a sister relationship with the sea eagles, Haliaeetus.
Movements: Partial migrant, with juveniles dispersing from the breeding areas (Bildstein 2006). Individuals arriving in Torres Strait in winter are probably dispersing juveniles (Draffon et al. 1983).
Habitat and Habits: In Australia, it occurs in coastal areas, estuaries, wetlands, rivers, swamps, and clearings, often hunting over forest canopy (Debus 1998). Coates (1985) described the preferred habitat in New Guinea as the vicinity of water, including coastal areas, swamps, and rivers, and forest clearings, forest edges, gardens, and savanna. Patrols coastlines, roads, and rivers (Coates and Bishop 1997). When it is not soaring, it spends its time on exposed perches in trees. Usually occurs singly or in pairs, but also in small family groups. It does not usually form large flocks like some kite species (Olsen 1995), although it sometimes roosts communally, rarely in groups reaching three figures (Wells 1999).
Additional details on Habitat and Habits:
China: In Yunnan Province, it is found in open country and wetlands in tropical and subtropical areas (Weizhi 2006). Sometimes perches in tall fig trees near human habitations, usually occurring in singles or pairs (Weizhi op cit.).
Malay Peninsula: Occurs in large estuaries and low-relief coasts with broad, muddy, mangrove-backed intertidal flats, and within that zone, busy harbors, fish-processing sites, and waterfront settlements attract them, but their dependence on wetlands has ensured that they have not become urban scavengers (Wells 1999). They also forage in larger expanses of subcoastal paddyland at all crop stages, especially between harvest and early flooding, and further inland, they occur in natural marshland and ex-dredge mine land, loafing in nearby casuarina and tembusu trees (Wells op cit.).
Indonesia: On Sumba, it is usually seen over open areas, but also hunts in and over forest, and occurs in virtually all habitats, including coastal, upland, cropland, and urban (Olsen and Trost 2007).
Sabah: Occurs along the coast and at beaches, harbors, mangroves, river edges, agricultural plantations, and logged forests (Sheldon et al. 2001).
Food and Feeding Behavior: Has a diverse diet, including small birds, fish, and insects, which it snatches from the surface of water or from foliage (Coates 2001). Soars low, searching mudflats, beaches, and harbors for small prey and scraps, exposed or washed up by the tide, which it snatches in flight (Olsen 1995) and often eats directly, while soaring. Regularly scavenges around harbors and trash dumps (Coates and Bishop 1997). It is attracted to grassland fires, taking easily caught prey such as young birds, amphibians, and carrion, including floating or stranded fish and snakes, and it also kleptoparasitizes conspecifics and other raptors up to the size of White-bellied Fish Eagles (Wells 1999).
Additional details on Food and Feeding:
China: Feeds on frogs, fish, rodents and insects in Yunnan Province (Weizhi 2006).
Malay Peninsula: Forages by quartering 20-50 m high over water, low-tide mudflats, emptying fish ponds, wet agricultural fields, and commonly patrols open-ground shorebird roosts, probably on the lookout for weaker birds (Wells 1999). Competes with other raptors for rat carcasses after poison-baiting of harvested paddyland (Wells op cit.). Also takes swarming termites on the wing, which are snatched with the feet (Edgar 1947).
Indonesia: In central Sumba, this species is a dietary generalist, feeing on birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, and carrion (Olsen and Trost 2007).
Sabah: Feeds on snakes, lizards, insects, birds, crabs, and fish (Sheldon et al. 2001). They capture swarming ants and termites on the wing (D.M. Batchelor fide Sheldon et al. 2001) and have been observed eating sea turtle hatchlings (de Silva and Chong 1974).
New Guinea: Does not scavenge as much in New Guinea as in some other regions, although it does patrol roads to some extent, and its diet includes insects caught on the wing, grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, lizards, frogs, small snakes, mice, and crabs (Coates 1985). Much of the prey is snatched up in passing, and it is adept at snatching fish from just below the water surface (Coates op cit.). Bell (1971) saw one snatch a small honeyeater from a coconut palm, Coates (op cit.) saw one swoop unsuccessfully on a tree full of Rainbow Bee Eaters, but he did not think that this species preys often on birds, since the local people do not regard it as a threat to chickens.
Australia: Feeds on large carcasses, road kills, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, arthropods, shellfish, cuttlefish, and offal (Debus 1998). It forages by quartering and high soaring, or still-hunting from a prominent perch, or sometimes searches on the ground, and it also seizes prey in a glide or dive that might become a short chase, hawks flying insects, snatches prey from the tree canopy and water surfaces (without submerging), and robs other predators (Debus op cit.). It occasionally takes live fish from water, but it has rather weak feet (Olsen 1995). The male of a breeding pair in New South Wales brought crabs and fish to the nest and was also observed capturing a Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala) (Lutter et al. 2006).
Breeding: Pairs nest solitarily, although adjacent pairs may be only 100 m apart in different trees (Wells 1999). The nest is a large platform of sticks lined with twigs, bark, leaves, and dung, and placed 2-30 m above the ground in a prominent fork of a tall tree, usually on a forested slope providing a view of the surroundings (Debus 1998, Kennedy et al. 2000). In Malaysia, nests are lined with a pan of dry mud (Wells op cit.). The same nests are used in successive years and become larger with the addition of new material. Clutch size is 1-3 eggs, which are white with small brown spots. Incubation lasts about 35 days, and the nestling period is 50-56 days (Debus 1998). Usually, only one young fledges, but sometimes there are successful broods of two or three. The period of dependence after fledging lasts up to two months (Debus 1op cit.).
China: Breeds from March to May in Yunnan Province (Weizhi 2006).
Malay Peninsula: Nest building, attendance at nests, and copulation during late October-March, mostly in November-December, eggs are laid and incubation commences in December-March and also mid-June, and chicks have been recorded in all months from January to mid-August, but with most activity in the first half of the season (Edgar 1933, Madoc 1956, Wells 1990).
Sabah: D.M. Batchelor (fide Sheldon et al. 2001) observed a nest with one egg near the mouth of the Bondawan River in January 1962, but thought from other observations that the main breeding season occurred earlier than January.
New Guinea: A recently completed nest was found by Coates (1985) on 26 June in the Trans-Vanapa area in the mid-dry season. It was located 25 m above the ground in a fork of a nearly horizontal limb of a tree in a partly cleared garden area. The nest was completed in late July, and an adult was observed incubating on 8 August. A single fledged young was seen perched next to the nest in late November. Other nests have been reported in the Port Moresby area in September and October and in New Britain in June (Coates op cit.). A nest with one large young was seen on Emira Island, New Ireland Province, in late May (Silva 1975). Recently fledged young have been seen at Tabubil in the OK Tedi area in October and at Baiyer River in August (Coates op cit.).
Australia: Laying takes place in the dry season in the tropics and late winter to spring in the subtropics (Debus 1998).
China: Builds a nest in large trees in Yunnan Province (Weizhi 2006).
Malay Peninsula: Nests are typically in a living emergent tree in mangrove forests along the coast and in casuarina or tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) trees where inland nesting occurs, including in gardens (Wells 1999). Nests in trees in swampy areas are sometimes as low as 5-6 m of the ground, while those on dry land are rarely below 20-25 m. Within the tree, the location varies from an interior fork in the leafiest part of the crown to a dead prong. A pair at Kapar, Selangor built a nest on the flat top of an electricity pylon in November 1993, probably the first record of a non-tree site for this species (Wells op cit.).
Sabah: The nest found by D. Batchelor (fide Sheldon et al. 2001) was 15 m high in a jungle tree, and a nest reported by Sharpe (1879) was “found high in a tree.”
China: 2-3 eggs in Yunnan Province (Weizhi 2006).
Malay Peninsula: 2 eggs (Wells 1999).
Philippines: 2-3 eggs (Kennedy et al. op cit.).
Sabah: Nests reported by Sharpe (1879) and D. Batchelor (in Sheldon et al. 2001) each contained a single egg.
New Guinea: 1-3 eggs (Coates 1985).
Australia: 1 or 2 eggs (Debus 1998).
Malay Peninsula: Chalky, glossless, dirty white, some with sparse, reddish-brown squiggles and dots; shape elliptical (Wells 1990).
Sabah: An egg was described by Sharpe (1879) as “dull white,” and one in the nest found by Batchelor (Sheldon et al. 2001) was white, speckled with rust.
Malay Peninsula: 52.0 x 40.6 mm and 53.0 x 41.1 mm (n = 2) (Wells 1990).
Sabah: Sharpe (1879) gave the measurements of an egg as 1.95 x 1.4 in. (= 49.5 x 35.6 mm).
Conservation: Generally common throughout its extensive range. Categorized globally as a species of “Least Concern” by BirdLife International (2007).
China: Second Class Important Protected Bird in China (Weizhi 2006).
Thailand: Wells (1999) noted that this species is scarce in Thailand, where it is negatively affected by hunting (Wells 1999).
Malay Peninsula: The abundance of this species is linked to mangroves, and any loss of this habitat affects them negatively (Wells 1999). In some villages, the young are taken as pets and may account for the scarcity of the species in what seems to be ideal habitat (Wells op cit.).
Australia: According to Olsen (1995), the Australian population has decreased slightly. This species once occurred in New South Wales as far south as Sydney, but it has apparently not occurred there since the beginning of the 20th century. The range now extends only to the extreme northeastern corner of the state (Olsen op cit.). Debus (1998) noted that this species benefits from extra food provided by humans in the form of carrion and refuse. However, its range contracted in eastern Australia, where eggshell thickness was reduced during the period of DDT use, and the population is also affected by habitat disturbance (Debus op cit.).
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