Is there a bird watcher anywhere in the Lower 48 who does not feel affection for the Mississippi Kite? If you live within its ever-expanding breeding range and have been lucky enough to study a kite or two (or five) circling overhead, you know that odd mix of hesitancy and dash that makes its flight so delightful.
“On the wing [it] is graceful, buoyant, usually deliberate,” ornithologist and painter George Miksch Sutton observed, “The square-tipped tail tilts this way and that as the bird directs its course with caution. So frequently does the kite hang in air as if suspended, or soar as if there were nothing in the world to do but soar, that we are surprised when we see it stoop at a White-necked Raven, or descend with a roar of its wings upon its prey.”
The prey is most often grasshoppers, cicadas, dragonflies, and other large insects, which the bird will capture and happily consume on the wing as you follow with your binoculars.
If you live west or north of the kite’s known range, even far beyond its current borders, you should probably have the species on your list of “birds to watch for,” because it strays regularly and can appear almost anywhere, especially from late spring through early summer. Mississippi Kites have been pushing west toward the Pacific and north toward Canada for at least the last 60 or 70 years. How many hopeful, knowing birders all across the United States scan the skies each spring trying to be the first to find it in their home counties?
Encouraging their attitude is the species’ hopscotching M.O. where it apparently touches down in new nesting areas hundreds of miles distant from all previously known sites. Where the next pair will show up seems to be anyone’s guess.
In the late 1960s, after extending the western edge of its range from west Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle into the southeastern corner of New Mexico, it apparently skipped past central and western New Mexico to settle on the San Pedro River deep inside Arizona. By 1970, observers estimated that 10 pairs had taken up residence in the area, several hundred miles from their nearest known relatives, and by 1985 the population there and on the tributaries of the Gila River had increased to an estimated 25 pairs. The species has continued nesting along the Gila in the years since, and the westernmost reports of stray kites are now coming from Southern California. As of January 2012, the California Bird Records Committee has accepted 44 sightings of the Mississippi Kite in the Golden State, though no nest has been found there…yet.
On the East Coast the species first extended its known nesting territory from South Carolina into North Carolina in the 1970s and has steadily expanded its presence in that state ever since, especially the southeastern corner. In the summer of 1996, two adults skipped north over northeastern North Carolina and most of Virginia to establish the first known nesting site of the species in the Commonwealth in a suburban backyard in Woodbridge, Virginia, less than two dozen miles from Washington, D.C.
In 1995 the species hopscotched beyond Nebraska to establish its northwestern- most known site in Colorado. It has continued as an expected breeder in the state—in Lamar, Colorado, and elsewhere in the eastern half of the state—and individual birds have been reported farther north and west.
The most extraordinary jump so far came on the East Coast in 2008. Birders in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have long been expecting to find kites nesting somewhere in their area, especially because soaring, foraging birds have become a regular presence each May and June at Cape May Point and other spring migration watches in the Mid-Atlantic. Instead, however, the kite skipped past all those states to nest first in a residential neighborhood of Newmarket, New Hampshire, 40 miles north of the Massachusetts border and more than 500 miles beyond that previously recognized northeastern-most nesting site in Woodbridge, Virginia.
That startling leap was only one of several, however. In the last few years the species has bred for the first time in Ohio (2007), Connecticut (2008), New York (2010), and Rhode Island (2011), and nested again in New Hampshire (2010). Why the expansion in so many different directions?
An article by James W. Parker and John C. Ogden, “The recent history and status of the Mississippi Kite,” published in American Birds more than 30 years ago in 1979, seems to have been the first to pull together all the threads of the story. Anyone interested in a complete understanding of the puzzle should read the authors’ detailed and prescient analysis in full.
Parker and Ogden note that the histories of the eastern and western (“Great Plains”) populations of the species are subtly different. The westward expansion, they argue, reflects agricultural practices dating back to the settlement on the edge of the kite’s range in the 1800s. “The primary effect of white settlement in the Great Plains has been a vast increase in woody vegetation.” Farmers and cattle ranchers in Texas and Oklahoma changed the landscape and accidentally provided kites with the scattered trees they prefer for nesting. “Tree planting near farm buildings was encouraged by government action…and the Prairie States Forestry Project (begun in 1934) resulted in most of the shelterbelts which still exist today.” These shelterbelts have been a key change. “Mississippi Kites are present now  at hundreds, if not thousands of nesting sites in the Great Plains where they could not have nested [previously].”
In the East, forest clearing has had a similar effect—turning forests too dense for kites into landscapes of scattered trees. Parker and Ogden note, “In the forested East lumbering could have disrupted nesting, but more likely has had a net positive effect by providing additional cultivated areas where foraging opportunities are improved for kites.”
They note that the kite is “endowed for rapid population recovery” because it nests in colonies, travels widely, and seems little affected by pesticides. Also, very importantly, nesting kites “easily tolerate extensive human activity.” (Most or all of the recent first state nesting records have been in suburban areas. The nest tree in Newmarket, New Hampshire, for example, stands in a small front yard within 50 feet of a busy road.)
The kite’s behavior on its wintering grounds and changes of forest landscapes in South and Central America may also be contributing factors. “The social behavior of kites during the non-breeding seasons,” the authors explain, “especially their way of forming spring migratory flocks and breeding pairs, could lead to many yearlings and possibly two-year-old birds being recruited into breeding populations far from those where they were produced.”
The species’ wintering grounds were poorly known at the time Parker and Ogden were writing and remain so today, mostly because Ictinia mississippiensis is so difficult to separate from its close relative, Ictinia plumbea, the Plumbeous Kite, which is less migratory and far more numerous in South and Central America. Banding recoveries have been few. Nevertheless, they note, “It is conceivable, and perhaps likely, that forest removal and agricultural expansion have increased foraging habitat and prey populations, as we assert has occurred in North America.”
They end their article predicting that the kite’s expansion would continue, as it has—perhaps even more impressively than they might have imagined.
Keep your eyes on the sky, everyone!