You may have noticed sleek, crow-sized birds soaring effortlessly above the treetops in your neighborhood this summer. These are Mississippi Kites, raptors that specializes in hunting large insects. The adult has a dark gray back, wings and tail, red eyes, a pale gray belly and a striking white head.
They have the ability to glide in circles for long periods of time. Then you may see them make a sudden dive. They are snatching prey, such as dragonflies, beetles and cicadas, from the air with their talons – often eating them on the wing.
Although insects are the main staple in their diet, they also hunt small vertebrates such as frogs, lizards, snakes, rodents, bats and small birds, taking them from trees or the ground.
Mississippi kites nest along riparian corridors in the southeastern United States, including a healthy population in southern Brazoria County. They have readily adapted to human settlement, and often build nests in wooded neighborhoods, golf courses and parks. Their stick nests are difficult to find, as they are usually hidden in dense foliage high in the canopy of large trees.
The kites spend the winter in South America, and return to the US in the spring. The locally- nesting kites appear in April. They have already paired up by the time they arrive, and commence establishing territory and nest building. In late May the female lays 2 eggs. Both parents share incubation responsibilities over the next 30 days.
The eggs hatch in late June. For the first 10 days, the hatchlings are tended closely by both sexes. While one parent broods the chicks, the other hunts and brings food to the nest. The adults trade duties several times each day. As the chicks grow, the adults leave the nest unattended for longer periods of time, and both spend more time hunting to feed their young. About 25 days after they hatch, the chicks start climbing out of the nest onto nearby limbs. This is called “branching”. Another week later, the youngsters are fully grown and they start to fly.
Currently, this year’s chicks are nearing the branching stage. The juvenile birds are covered with brown streaks, with a striped tail. They will perch near the nest and call incessantly for their parents to feed them. Over the next two to three weeks, the fledglings will make short flights near the nest, practicing how to fly and hunt on their own, and the parents will continue to feed them.
By the end of August, the youngsters will be fairly independent, and by mid-September the Mississippi kites will all start their long south-bound trek. They migrate in large flocks through Mexico and Central America, then along the Amazonian front of the Andes Mountains, to areas that have not been well documented in the south-central portion of the South American continent.
Take a few minutes and enjoy these graceful birds while they are still here. They are quite the acrobats, and fun to watch.
By Kay Lookingbill, Research Associate for Gulf Coast Bird Observatory