25 Birds With Split And Forked Tails (Photos+Fun Facts)

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Birds’ tails vary more than their wings. Some birds, like the Lyre-tailed nightjar, can have tails eight times longer than their body. 

Forked tails are important for birds because they help with aerial agility – the split tail shape makes the bird more agile when flying at high speeds.

While the birds are flying, if the outer feathers are two times longer than the inner feathers, forked tails will give a high lift-to-drag (LID) ratio. LID ratio is an indication of the aerodynamic efficiency of the bird.

And when it comes to the lift-to-drag ratio, a forked tail is always better. Although a deeply forked tail is aerodynamically efficient, such divided tails are more susceptible to damage because the outer feathers are not well supported by overlapping central feathers.

When it comes to the list of birds with forked tails, it is considerable. Small birds like the barn swallow, bank swallow, brown-capped Rosy-Finch, fork-tailed flycatcher; prey birds like the swallow-tailed kite and the red kite; and other birds like the Arctic tern, fork-tailed Storm-Petrel all have split tails. 

Let’s explore the 25 most interesting birds with forked tails so you can identify them next time you meet them in the wild.

Birds With Forked Tails

Swallow-tailed Kite

swallow tailed kite
Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United KingdomCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Elanoides forficatus
Lifespan: 6 years
Wingspan: 4 ft
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: United States

The swallow-tailed kite, also known as the American swallow-tailed kite, is a medium-sized broad-winged (pernine) species of raptors. This bird of prey has a bright-white head and underparts, while the wings, back, and tails are black.

With its long wings, deeply forked tail, and bold black-and-white plumage, the swallow-tailed kite is very easy to recognize in flight.

Because of its V-shaped tail, the 18th century English naturalist Mark Catesby named the bird “Accipiter cauda furcata” (forked-tail hawk). They are carnivores and feed on insects, frogs, anoles, and snakes.

During the fall and winter, swallow-tailed kites are in South America; at the beginning of spring, they arrive in Florida to breed. This bird once inhabited big parts of the southeastern United States – today they are mostly found in swamps, marshes, and large rivers in Florida.

Swallow-tailed kites currently mostly inhabit seven southeastern states: Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

And if you want to see these magnificent birds right, make sure to bring a good pair of binoculars. Here’s an excellent budget-friendly Amazon option for you.


Red Kite

red kite predatory bird flying

Scientific name: Milvus milvus
Lifespan: 10 years
Wingspan: 5 ft
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Europe

A red kite is a medium-sized bird of prey with a characteristically long and deeply forked tail that is red above and pale below. They are the largest species of kites and have pale grey heads and yellow beaks.

Due to their split tail, red kites are very agile and can stay in the air for hours at a time.

They breed from Spain and Portugal east into central Europe and Ukraine, north to southern Sweden, Latvia, and the UK, and south to southern Italy. Just like the swallow-tailed kites, the red kites also migrate during winter.

They pair for life and during winter they might spend time apart or in communal roosts. 

Red kites are carnivores and feed on mice, voles, shrews, young hares, rabbits, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.


Bahama Swallow

bahama swallow
Craig NashCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Tachycineta cyaneoviridis
Lifespan: n/a
Wingspan: 15 in
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Bahamas

The Bahama swallow is a medium-sized swallow that has a white belly and chin, dark blue or green upper back, and steel-blue color of its wings. It is an endangered species noted for its deeply forked tail. 

When they are young, Bahama swallows are duller and have a less forked tail – they look a lot more like the juvenile Tree Swallows.

Bahama swallows are mostly found in the open fields and forests on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. They are insectivores, darting through the air to catch small flying insects.


Tree Swallow

tree swallows

Scientific name: Tachycineta bicolor
Lifespan: 3 years
Wingspan: 12-14 in
Tail: Shallowly forked
Found In: the United States and Canada

Tree swallows are small migratory songbirds with long, pointed wings and short, squared, or slightly notched tails. Their tails are not sharply forked.

Tree swallows breed in the United States and Canada – they begin migrating south in July and August to western Mexico and Central America. They are social animals with flocks of thousands of birds. Tree swallows are omnivores that feed on insects, mollusks, spiders, and occasionally on fruit, berries, and seeds.

You can see them in Florida, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and similar. If you want to see them in person and take good photos of them with your phone, make sure to bring a good phone lens for bird photography (Amazon option).


Barn Swallow

barn swallow

Scientific name: Hirundo rustica
Lifespan: 4 years
Wingspan: 12.5-13.5 in
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas

The barn swallow is the most widespread species of swallow in the world. It has a blue head and wings, rusty-orange throat and forehead, and a pale orange chest and underside. Barn swallows are distinguished for their long, slender, and deeply forked tails. Males and females look similar – the female’s tail is a little less forked.

According to legend, the Barn Swallow got its forked tail because it stole fire from the gods and brought it to people. This made the gods angry so they threw a firebrand at the swallow, burning its middle tail feathers.

The barn swallow is one of the largest swallow species found in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Although rare in the states in late fall and winter, you will be able to spot it as it comes back around late March.

In early fall, this long-distance migratory bird flies from North American breeding grounds to winter in Central and South America. 

Barn swallows are insectivores that catch and eat insects in the air as they fly.


Royal Tern

royal terns

Scientific name: Thalasseus maximus
Lifespan: up to 30 years
Wingspan: 40-50 in
Tail: Moderately forked
Found In: North America, South America, West Africa

The royal tern is the second-largest tern, after the Caspian Tern. It is a sleek seabird of warm saltwater coasts, gray below, white above, with a black crest and bright orange bill. The legs are short and the tail is moderately forked.

Scientists recognize two subspecies of Royal Tern, one found in North and South America, the other in West Africa. They are medium-distance migrants – North American terns migrate to Peru, Uruguay, and Argentina.

They are carnivores, feeding on small fish, shrimp, and crustaceans. A flock of Royal Terns is known as a “highness”.

Read More: Birds with incredible-looking orange bills


Arctic Tern

arctic tern

Scientific name: Sterna paradisaea
Lifespan: 15-30 years
Wingspan: 25-30 in
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Antarctic, North America, Europe, and Asia

The Arctic tern is a small, slender gray-and-white bird with narrow wings, short legs, and a black cap. Its long and deeply forked tail is white with grey outer webs.

This tern is a small but mighty flyer, well known for its long-distance migrations. Arctic Terns migrate from pole to pole, traveling over 25,000 miles each year.

They are carnivores (piscivores) and feed on small fish, crayfish, and some insects.


Fork-tailed Drongo

fork tailed drongo
Neelix at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Dicrurus adsimilis
Lifespan: 15 years
Wingspan: n/a
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Africa

The fork-tailed drongo, also known as the common drongo and the African drongo, is a medium-sized bird with red eyes, black plumage, and a narrow tail that splays out into a fork. That’s how they got their name.

What is interesting about these birds is that they are kleptoparasites. 

This means that most of the time, they will follow other animals, and genuinely warn them when they spot a predator. However, sometimes drongos will make false alarms when other animals find food. Those scared animals will run away and drongos will feast on their catch. They mostly rob birds like pied babblers and animals such as meerkats.

Drongos are very aggressive towards large predators who roam around their area – they will mob, harass, and peck raptors, forcing them to move out of their territory.


Common House Martin

common house martin

Scientific name: Delichon urbicum
Lifespan: 5 years
Wingspan: 11 in
Tail: Moderately forked
Found In: Africa, Europe, and Asia

The common house martin, also known as the northern house martin, is a small migratory passerine bird with a dark blue mantle and crown, gray wings and tail, and white underparts. The fork of its tail is intermediate in depth. Compared to swallows, the common martin’s tail is much shorter and lacks long streamers.

When the winter comes, the common house martins migrate to sub-Saharan Africa and tropical Asia. From April to October, they stay at their breeding sites in Europe and Asia.

They are insectivores that feed on flies, aphids, and flying ants, catching them in the air.


House Sparrow

house sparrow

Scientific name: Passer domesticus
Lifespan: 3-5 years
Wingspan: 9 in
Tail: Shallowly forked
Found In: Asia, North Africa, and Europe

The house sparrow is a small brightly colored bird, with a gray head, white cheeks, a black bib, and a reddish-brown neck. The tail is very shallow, with a very small split. 

House sparrows are the most widely distributed wild birds; the oldest recorded captive house sparrow lived 23 years. They feed on grains and seeds, discarded food, and insects.


Fork-tailed flycatcher

fork tailed flycatcher
Rogier KlappeCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Tyrannus savana
Lifespan: 5-10 years
Wingspan: 6-15 in
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Mexico and Argentina

The fork-tailed flycatcher is a passerine bird with a black cap, white color below, and gray above. It got its name for the distinguishingly long, forked tail. It is a bird with one of the longest tails on the North American continent.

Fork-tailed flycatchers are some of the fastest birds, reaching speeds of 65 mph. What gives them an edge in flight and allows them to make sharp twists and turns in the air are their long tail feathers.

Most of them are migratory birds, but some stay the entire year, especially those in southern Mexico. Those that do, migrate two times a year.


Pacific Swift

pacific swift
OzmaCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Apus pacificus
Lifespan: n/a
Wingspan: 17-21 in
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Australia and Asia

The Pacific swift, also known as a fork-tailed Swift, is a highly aerial bird with pointed wings, dark plumage, and a deeply forked tail. Swifts, just like martins, have similar-looking tails. The pacific swift will sometimes hold its tail folded. That way, the fork disappears and resembles a long spike. 

They are insectivores and feed on termites, moths, wasps, bees, and flies. They are migratory species that fly to south-east Asia and Australia.


Gilded Flicker

female gilded flicker

Scientific name: Colaptes chrysoides
Lifespan: n/a
Wingspan: 18 in
Tail: Shallowly forked
Found In: California, Arizona, and southwestern Mexico

The gilded flicker is a large-sized woodpecker with a large black crescent on the chest, dots on the breast, a barred back, and a brownish crown. It is yellow under the tail and wings and has a shallowly forked tail. They are quite similar to Northern flickers who have red color under their tails (like the one in the photo).

Gilded flickers are residents or short-distance migrants – they move from the northern parts to the southern U.S. to winter.

In case you want to see these birds properly, make sure to bring a good monocular telescope with you. Here’s an excellent, budget-friendly option from Amazon.


Ashy Storm-Petrel

ashy storm petrel
Pacific Southwest Region USFWS from Sacramento, US, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Oceanodroma homochroa
Lifespan: 25 years
Wingspan: 18 in
Tail: Shallowly forked
Found In: California

Ashy Storm-petrel is a small seabird with a long and forked tail. Its body has a light gray color, while the wings have dark and light gray patterns.

They are migratory birds and can live a long life – up to 34 years! Ashy storm petrels mate in the same pair with the same mate for many years and nest at the same burrow.


Great Frigatebird

great frigatebird

Scientific name: Fregata minor
Lifespan: 30-34 years
Wingspan: 80-90 in
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Coasts of America, the Caribbean Sea, and Cape Verde

The great frigatebird is a large seabird with black plumage, long, slender wings, and a deeply forked tail. The tail may appear pointed when folded. Male great frigatebirds are smaller than females.

They will often steal fish and other food from other seabirds. Great frigatebirds are migratory.

Male frigatebirds belong to a group of birds with red necks because of the inflatable throat pouches they use to seduce females during the breeding season.


Pin-tailed Whydah

pin-tailed whydah
Charles J. SharpCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Vidua macroura
Lifespan: 12 years
Wingspan: n/a
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Sub-Saharan Africa and Puerto Rico

Pin-tailed whydah is a small songbird with a red bill and black back and crown. Breeding males have a long and conspicuous pennant-like tail. As winter approaches, males will lose their bright colors and long tails.

They are brood parasite species – they lay their eggs in the nests of birds of another species and give no parental care to the eggs.


Lilac-breasted Roller

lilac breasted roller

Scientific name: Coracias caudatus
Lifespan: 10 years
Wingspan: 20-23 in
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Eastern and Southern Africa

The lilac-breasted roller is a beautifully colored African bird famous for its acrobatic aerial displays during the breeding season. Its breast is lilac, the underside is turquoise, and the top part of the wings is reddish-brown. The tail is deeply forked, turquoise, and ends in thin black streamers.

These birds mate for life and both males and females share their parental duty. 

Read More: Black Colored Birds With White Patches


Sabine’s Gull

sabine's gull
Ron KnightCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Xema sabini
Lifespan: 8 years
Wingspan: 33-36 in
Tail: Shallowly forked
Found In: North America, Arctic, north-western coast of Africa, and Greenland

Sabine’s gull, also known as the fork-tailed gull, is a small bird with a gray head, a black edge around it, and a black bill with a yellow tip. It has long, pointed wings and a shallowly forked tail. 


American Goldfinch

american goldfinch

Scientific name: Spinus tristis
Lifespan: 3-6 years
Wingspan: 7.5-8.7 in
Tail: Shallowly forked
Found In: North America

The American goldfinch is a small migratory bird with a small head, short, slightly notched tail, and long wings with a single broad white wing stripe. 

Male and female American goldfinches have a colorful carotenoid-based orange bill during the breeding season; the bill serves as an indicator of the overall health of the bird. The more saturated with orange a bill is, the higher the testosterone levels are in that specific bird.

This is helpful as it can reduce the chance of a physical battle, risk of injury, and loss of time and energy.

American goldfinches molt twice a year, once in late winter and again in late summer. They are the state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington.


Purple Martin

purple martin

Scientific name: Progne subis
Lifespan: 5-7 years
Wingspan: 15 in
Tail: Shallowly forked
Native to: North America

Purple Martin is the largest swallow in North America. It has a slightly hooked bill, short and forked tail, and long, tapered wings.

Adult males are dark overall with a purplish-blue shimmer visible at close range. Depending on the light and angle, their head color may appear to be royal blue, navy blue, deep purple, or even green.

Females are grayer with shine on the crown and back.

Purple martins will typically build their nests out of straw, twigs, and pine needles. They are very social and colonial birds – the largest roosting colony ever discovered had over 700,000 birds!

Purple martins are carnivores (insectivores) that feed on fire ants, bugs, flies, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, crickets, moths, wasps, bees, cicadas, spiders, and termites.

They are also excellent flyers that can reach flight speeds of over 40 mph.


Green-crowned Woodnymph

green crowned woodnymph
Michael WoodruffCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Thalurania fannyi
Lifespan: n/a
Wingspan: n/a
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: South America

This South American hummingbird can be found in evergreen forests and the edge of tropical lowlands, often near streams. 

The male Green-crowned woodnymph has a green plumage above with an iridescent green head, throat, and breast. The underparts are deep iridescent blue and the tail is dark blue and deeply forked.

These birds found in Belize and Guatemala to northern Peru, mostly feed on nectar taken from a variety of brightly colored, scented small flowers of trees, herbs, shrubs, and epiphytes.

Green-crowned woodnymphs are polygynous and a male may mate with several females; the female will do the same with several males. Males will not participate in choosing the nest location, building the nest, or raising the chicks.


Fork-tailed Storm Petrel

fork-tailed storm petrel
Stanley, Carla, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Scientific name: Oceanodroma furcata
Lifespan: up to 25 years
Wingspan: 18.1 in
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: North America and Asia

This beautiful silvery-blue seabird spends most of its life over the cold waters of the open North Pacific Ocean. The fork-tailed storm petrel is the second-most widespread species of storm petrel and can be found throughout northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Alaska, and northeast Asia.

Just like other storm petrels, this species will fly close to the surface of the water and when it spots a fish or a crustacean, the fork-tailed storm petrel will dip down and seize prey with its bill. It is among the rare birds that use the sense of smell to locate food.

Fork-tailed storm petrel has a deeply forked tail that is best visible during the flight when the long and split tail makes the bird look even more stunning.

Fork-tailed storm petrel keeps oil in its stomach that is used to scare away predators or to feed chicks. It has one of the largest eggs relative to body size – a female fork-tailed storm petrel lays an egg that is around 20% of its total body weight.


Black-headed Bunting

black headed bunting

Scientific name: Emberiza melanocephala
Lifespan: up to 11 years in the wild
Wingspan: n/a
Tail: Shallowly forked
Found In: Europe and Asia

Black-headed bunting is a stocky bunting that breeds in open scrubby areas. It has a long, slightly forked, brown-gray tail and a rather long bill.

Males have bright yellow underparts, chestnut upperparts, and black heads. Females are much paler with gray-brown backs and grayish heads.

When the winter comes, these black-headed buntings head out to Asia, sometimes crossing over 4,300 miles. They can be often found in flocks as they forage on grasslands looking for seeds and insects.


Black-chinned Hummingbird

black chinned hummingbird

Scientific name: Archilochus alexandri
Lifespan: up to 10 years
Wingspan: 1.5-1.9 in
Tail: Shallowly forked
Found In: North America

The black-chinned hummingbird is a small migratory hummingbird with metallic green upperparts and white underparts. It has a long slender beak and a dark forked tail. Males have black faces and chins and glossy purple throat bands.

When the cold weather comes, the black-chinned hummingbird may consume almost three times its body weight in nectar in a single day.

These birds can be found in mountains, woodlands, orchards, and meadows of the western United States, reaching north into Canada in Alberta and British Columbia, east to Oklahoma, and as far south as Mexico.

Read More: 5 beautiful species of loons in Canada

Black-chinned hummingbirds are omnivores that feed on insects and nectar.

As part of their courting rituals, males will make broad U-shaped dives 60-100 feet past a perched female. However, outside the breeding season, they are mostly solitary birds.


Sandwich Tern

sandwich tern

Scientific name: Thalasseus sandvicensis
Lifespan: 18-22 years
Wingspan: 33-38 in
Tail: Deeply forked
Found In: Europe, Asia, Africa, South, and North America

This medium-sized tern has a thin yellow-tipped black beak, long, pointed wings, and a medium-long tail that is deeply split.

Sandwich ten is easy to recognize by its grey upperparts, white underparts, and shaggy black crest. Both sexes look similar.

It is a very vocal bird that feeds by plunge-diving into the water for fish and then offering it to the female as part of the courtship display.

Sandwich tern got its peculiar name from the town Sandwich in the United Kingdom, where the ornithologist who first described the bird in 1787 just happened to live.

Sandwich tern is a carnivore that mostly eats smaller fish, shrimp, squid, marine worms, and many insects.


Couch’s kingbird

couch's kingbird

Scientific name: Tyrannus couchii
Lifespan: n/a
Wingspan: 16 in
Tail: Shallowly forked
Found In: North and Central America

Couch’s kingbird is a large flycatcher that can be found around woodland edges and near ponds and rivers in southern Texas during the summer.

This yellow-breasted bird has a pale gray head, whitish throat, and gray-brown upperparts. It also has a dark beak, legs, and a slightly forked tail.

Couch’s kingbird got its name after the soldier and naturalist Darius N. Couch. It looks very similar to a tropical kingbird and until the 1960s the two were considered to be the same species.

Couch’s kingbird is an omnivore that feeds on small berries, seeds, and larger insects like beetles, grasshoppers, wasps, and large flies.


Final Thoughts

This concludes our article on birds with forked tails. 

There are plenty of bird species with forked (split) tails including Kites, Terns, Storm-Petrels, Swallows, and others. Some of them have a very distinct v-shape of their tails, while others have less prominent ones.

Read more: Animals that very much resemble meerkats

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