Living Sanibel: Snail Kite
In the early 1960s, this neo-tropical species had been reduced to a remnant population of a scarce 25 birds. The DDT ban and the restoration of apple snail habitat resulted in a dramatic rebound. Estimates today put the snail kite population at well over 1,000 birds and growing. During extremely dry years snail kites, like wood storks, will forgo breeding entirely, and many adults will starve. During wet winters, when the snail population explodes, the snail kite’s population does the same, making it a perfect “boom or bust” species. In the worldview, which is what the much larger IUCN looks at, the snail kite is in excellent shape, with stable populations in Central and South America.
All kites are raptors, related to hawks, kestrels, and eagles. They are called kites because they soar extensively and predominantly feed while in flight. The snail kite swoops down and grabs unsuspecting apple snails on the wing, then perches on the ground or a nearby snag and devours the animal inside the shell. The snail kite has a specialized hooked beak allowing it to remove the operculum (the small lid that seals the living mollusk inside of its shell) and access the snail meat. The arrival of the much larger invasive South American island apple snail taxes the kite’s beak, which is accustomed to feeding on a much smaller snail. It will be interesting to see how or if the snail kite adapts to this change. The limpkin, which is the other Florida bird that lives almost exclusively on snails, has learned to crush the shell of this larger snail and is thriving because of it.
For birders, finding and seeing a snail kite in Florida (the only state in the U.S. where the bird occurs) is a dream come true. Several locations identified in this book make this task easy. Look for the snail kite along the fringe marshes of Lake Okeechobee in Glades and Hendry counties and in Harn’s Marsh, located in LeHigh Acres in Lee County. It can also be seen over freshwater marshes in Collier County. It is not a coastal species since the snails it feeds on are not saltwater or brackish-water tolerant.
Aside from falcons and owls, the mature snail kite has few natural predators. The chicks and eggs fall prey to snakes, alligators, and other mammalian predators. The largest impact to its population is the abundance, or lack thereof, of apple and island apple snails.