Investigating Current and Historic White-tailed Kite Population Trends Using Genetic Techniques

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A White-tailed kite. Photo by Heather Mohan.
A White-tailed kite. Photo by Heather Mohan.

The White‑tailed Kite has demonstrated large population fluctuations over the last 150 years. Once common in California, Texas, and the southeast United States, kite numbers declined to very low levels in the 1900s and was thought to be on the verge of extinction by the 1930s. In the 1940s populations began to expand and increasing numbers were observed during the following decades. Today, the White-tailed Kites are common residents throughout much of California, with slow but steady increases in population numbers in the Central Plains states, Texas and Florida. It is unknown whether current U.S. populations suffered a severe genetic bottleneck in the early 1900s and have rebounded since, or whether current U.S. population growth has been related to immigration from Central and South America populations. We are using genetic techniques to examine museum specimens collected before 1930 and modern samples collected in the 1990s from California to provide clues as to whether modern Kites in California in fact have low diversity due to a genetic bottleneck or whether they were founded and sustained by immigrants from other continents.