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Ictinia plumbea

Plumbeous Kite

  • Order: Accipitriformes
  • Family: Accipitridae
  • Monotypic

Authors: Yu, Hilary



Aptly named for its primarily dark slate gray plumage, the adult Plumbeous Kite is also distinctive for the white barring on its tail and extensive rufous patches on the primaries. When folded, the long, pointed wings extend beyond the relatively long tail. The bill is black and hooked, the legs are orange, and the claws are black. The eyes of adult Plumbeous Kites are a deep blood-red in color. Adult males are around 23 cm in length and 279 grams in weight, with females slightly larger. Apart from the difference in size, adult males and females are similar.

Immature kites have gray upperparts and whitish underparts with heavy, dark gray brown streaking. The rufous wing patches are absent, but the primaries often have some touches of reddish-brown. The bill is black with a yellow cere.

The Plumbeous Kite is highly similar to and thus difficult to distinguish from its congener, Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis).

Similar Species

Plumbeous and Mississippi (Ictinia mississippiensis) kites are highly similar to one another, and are the only two species in the genus Ictinia. Based on morphology and behavior, the two have been considered by some to be conspecific (Sutton 1944) and by others to form a superspecies (Thioallay 1994). Although the breeding ranges of the two do not overlap, the Mississippi Kite migrates south and winters within the range of Plumbeous Kite (Peters 1931).

Both the Plumbeous and Mississippi kites are overall slate gray  and share a similar shape, having a broad, round head and a compact body. Plumbeous Kite, however, is generally darker and has a shorter tail. Plumbeous Kite also tends to have more extensive and noticeable rufous wing patches, and lacks the white or whitish upper surface to the secondaries of adult Mississippi Kite. The tail is usually truncate in  Plumbeous Kite but slightly forked in Mississippi Kite. Plumbeous Kite also has been described to have brighter feet. Among immatures, Mississippi Kite has a whiter, less heavily streaked chin, as well as broader brown - as opposed to grey - streaking in the underparts. Immature Mississippi Kites also have more “concealed white on the scapulars and wing coverts” (Sutton 1944).

The calls of Plumbeous and Mississippi kites are very similar (Sutton 1994), although the second note in the latter seems to be held for a longer time.


The call of the Plumbeous Kite is a shrill, two note whistle, phee-phew (Sutton 1994).

 Generally silent, the Plumbeous Kite tends to vocalize more during the breeding season; adults have been observed to call upon  approaching or landing at the nest to switch off during incubation, or when defending the nest against potential predators (Seavy et al. 1998).

Additional audio recordings of vocalizations of Plumbeous Kite can be heard at Macaulay Library and at xeno-canto.

Nonvocal Sounds

None reported.

Detailed Description (appearance)

The following description is based on Ridgway and Friedmann (1950):

Adult: Sexes similar. Head, chin, throat, nape and underparts range from gull gray to dark gull gray. The undertail coverts are darker slate gray. Lores and circumocular region are black. Scapulars, interscapulars, and rump are slate to dark slate. The upperwing coverts and uppertail coverts are slightly glossy plumbeous black. The outermost primary is blackish slate, and the inner webs of the next six primaries are rufous. The innermost primaries and secondaries also are blackish. The plumbeous-black rectrices are marked by three white bars across the inner webs except on the median pair, which is simply black in color. Males and females differ only in size, with females being the larger of the two. 

Juvenile: The top and sides of the head are streaked black and white. The remaining upperparts, wings, and tail are gray black to black, with white-tipped feathers. The tail is like that of the adults, but where the adults have rufous patches on the wings, the young have whitish patches, mottled with fuscous. The entire underparts are whitish, narrowly streaked with fuscous on the chin and throat, and more broadly streaked on the chest and middle of the abdomen. The streaks turn into bars on the flanks,  thighs, and undertail coverts. The underwing coverts are also whitish with fuscous barring.

 Nestlings: Natal down is reported to be white. 

Bare Parts

Bill black, cere bluish-black. The iris is a carmine-red. The tarsus and toes are a deep reddish orange or reddish yellow, and the claws are black.

Juveniles differ in that the cere is red-orange, the iris is a pale brown, and the legs and feet tend to be more yellow.


Total length: 33-37 cm (Howell and Webb 1995), 34.5-37 cm (Ridgely and Greenfield 2001b), 36 cm (Hilty and Brown 1986); wingspan: 84-94 cm (Howell and Webb 1995).

Mensural data (mm) for Ictinia plumbea (Ridgway and Friedmann 1950)
     mean   range 
 wing (mm)  male (n = 13)   298.2  270- 313
   female (n = 11)  301.6  274-320.5
 tail (mm)  male (n = 13)   148.5  123-167
   female (n = 11)  145.3  139-161
 culmen from cere (mm)  male (n = 13)  16.6  15.5-18
   female (n = 11)  17.1  16-19.5
 tarsus (mm)  male (n = 13)  38.5  37-42.2
   female (n = 11)  37.7  34-42
 middle toe without claw (mm)  male (n = 13)  26.8  26-27.5
   female (n = 11)  26.3  24-29


Mass: male, mean 243 g (range 190-297 g, n = 16; Haverschmidt and Mees 1994); female, mean 257 g (range 232-294 g, n = 7; Haverschmidt and Mees 1994).


Not reported.

Geographic Variation

 Monotypic, no variation throughout its range.


Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia plumbea) and Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis) comprise the only members of the genus Ictinia. Sutton (1944) classified mississippiensis as a subspecies of plumbea, but most authorities recognize each as a species. Some authorities (Thiollay 1994) consider the two to form a superspecies.

Accipitridae encompasses 217 species and includes the hawks, eagles, Old World vultures, and kites. On the basis of morphological data, three clades of kites traditionally were recognized: Milvinae (including Ictinia), Elaninae and Perninae. Phylogenetic analyses of DNA sequence data, from both nuclear and mitochondrial genesMolecular analyses, however, reveal the Perninae and Milvinae subfamilies to be polyphyletic (Lerner et al. 2005, Griffiths et al. 2007), and that many buteoine taxa are embedded within kites. The affinities of Ictinia within this radiation are not yet established, however. Lerner et al. (2005) place Ictinia as basal to a clade that includes Geranospiza, Rostrhamus, Buteogallus, Rupornis, Pseudastur, Parabuteo, Buteo, and Leucopternis. Griffiths et al. (2007) place Ictinia within a radiation that includes many of the same taxa, but identify Ictinia as sister to Butastur (an Old World genus).

Recommended Citation

Yu, Hilary. 2012. Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia plumbea), Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: