Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus Scientific name definitions

Stephen Debus, Tim S. David, Jeffrey S. Marks, and Guy M. Kirwan
Version: 1.2 — Published October 1, 2021


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Systematics History

Originally described as Falco indus Boddaert, 1783 [type locality = Pondicherry, India]. The genus Haliastur was described by Selby in 1840. Haliastur includes the synonym Ictiniastur (Mathews, 1915; type = H. sphenurus).

Geographic Variation

Variation in this species is somewhat clinal, with the most streaked form found in the western part of the range and the least streaked in the southeastern portion. Still, subspecies fall roughly in two groups: the Asian black-streaked subspecies and the Australasian unstreaked subspecies. Size differences, however, are not clinal. The extent of intergradation between subspecies has not been extensively studied. In Australia, the clutch size of this species is slightly larger in the West than in the East (10).


Four subspecies recognized. Subspecies girrenera and flavirostris may intergrade in Bismarck Archipelago, while subspecies indus and intermedius may intergrade in Peninsular Malaysia (11). Subspecies intermedius and girrenera may also intergrade on the islands to the west of New Guinea (12).


Haliastur indus indus Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Falco indus Boddaert, 1783 [type locality: Pondicherry, India].


Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka through southeastern Asia to southern China.


Large subspecies; white head, mantle, and breast show fine black streaks. Narrow paler tail tips. Juvenile rather uniformly brown with tawny streaks on head and breast, less obvious "mask" behind eyes across ear coverts (11).


Haliastur indus intermedius Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Haliastur intermedius Gurney, 1865. [type locality = Java].


Malay Peninsula, Philippines, Greater and Lesser Sundas, Sulawesi and related small islands, and Sula Islands.


Similar to nominate, but finer streaks restricted to shafts. Birds of this subspecies are larger in the western part of its range than in the east (11). Juvenile is said to be intermediate between indus and girrenera (11).


Haliastur indus girrenera Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Haliaetus girrenera Vieillot, 1822. [type locality = New South Wales, Australia] (12).


Moluccas, New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago, and northern and eastern Australia.


Smallest subspecies, but averages larger in Australia than in New Guinea. Head and breast of adults plain white, broad white tail tip, and bill dull yellow with gray base. Juvenile has a pale head due to dense creamy streaking with a contrasting dark mask; the belly is also paler (11).


Haliastur indus flavirostris Scientific name definitions

Systematics History

Haliastur indus flavirostris Condon and Amadon, 1954. [type locality = Bougainville Is] (12).


Feni Islands and nearby Green Islands (off southeastern New Ireland), and Solomon Islands.


The largest subspecies. Similar in plumage to girrenera, but some adults show shaft-streaks on the back of their head. The belly may also be paler rufous (12). The bill is heavier, more "aquiline," and all yellow (12, 11). It is not known whether this different bill shape is correlated with more predatory habits or not (12).

Related Species

The Brahminy Kite and its sister species the Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus) are the only species of the genus Haliastur. They probably diverged from their common ancestor between 2.3 and 4.8 mya (13, 14). Haliastur kites were formerly placed in the subfamily Milvinae along with most of the other genera of kites, including Milvus, Harpagus, Ictinia, Rostrhamus, Helicolestes, Hamirostra, Lophoictinia, and sometimes Elanus. However, genetic studies have revealed that most of these genera are not closely related; it is well-established that Milvus and Haliastur are sister (15, 16, 17, 13, 14). These two genera are placed by most authors with Haliaeetus in the subfamily Haliaeetinae, a group most closely related to hawks of the Buteoninae subfamily (18, 19, 16, 17, 13); these two subfamilies are sometimes grouped together in a larger, more inclusive Buteoninae (14). Milvine kites (Milvus and Haliastur) and sea-eagles (Haliaeetus) share many characters, and an affinity to humid areas. They probably split from their closest relatives between 9.8 and 15.7 mya (13).

Brahminy Kite has hybridized with Whistling Kite in captivity (20).


The Brahminy Kite's name comes from the Brahmins, an Indian class which includes teachers and religious scholars (21). The Brahminy Kite is sacred to Hindus as it is supposed to represent Garuda, the king of birds. This bird often has an important place in the folklore within its range. In French, it is called Milan sacré, meaning "Sacred Kite," while it is called Milano brahmán in Spanish, the direct translation of "Brahminy Kite."

The generic name Haliastur comes from Greek hali, "sea," and Latin astur, "hawk" (22). It underlines some similarities in ecology with sea-eagles. The specific name indus refers to India, the type location of the species. The subspecific names intermedia and flavirostris derive from Greek and mean "intermediate" and "yellow-billed" respectively. The name of the Australian subspecies girrenera derives from the Aboriginal name for this bird (22).

Fossil History

Haliastur indus is known from Quaternary deposits of Indonesia (Flores Island), Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea (23, 24, 25)

Recommended Citation

Debus, S., T. S. David, J. S. Marks, and G. M. Kirwan (2021). Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus), version 1.2. In Birds of the World (P. Pyle, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.brakit1.01.2