Mississippi Kite Life History

Habitat

Habitat Open WoodlandsMississippi Kites breed in scattered areas of the southern and central United States, using very different habitats depending on the region. East of the Mississippi River, they nest in mature, diverse, low-lying forest—especially tracts that are large and unbroken but have nearby open habitat, such as pasture, cropland, waterways, country roads, or small lakes. In the Southwest and central plains, they nest in windbreak plantings within shortgrass and mixed prairie, in oak and mesquite savannah, and in cottonwoods and salt cedars lining rivers. Other woody plants in their nesting habitat include plum and juniper. Since the 1970s many western pairs have also nested in urban areas such as city parks and golf courses. During migration they travel through forest, savannah, pasture, dry plains, cropland (corn, coffee, and sugarcane), human-inhabited areas, and scrub habitat. Their South American wintering habitat is undocumented. Back to top

Food

Food InsectsMississippi Kites feed on medium-sized and large insects—such as beetles, leafhoppers, and grasshoppers—along with a variety of frogs, toads, lizards, turtles, snakes, small birds, terrestrial mammals, and bats. Often seen hunting in the company of other kites, they search for prey while soaring over woodlands, water, farmland, pasture, prairie, or (less frequently) from an exposed perch. With acrobatic maneuvers they extend one or both feet to grab prey from the air or from trees, shrubs, tall plants, and other objects on the ground, and they often eat their prize while still flying. Sometimes they forage on foot amid low vegetation, or even in shallow water. They may snag insects flushed by bison, people, horses, deer, and fire, and may scavenge roadkill.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest TreeMississippi Kites nest in almost any tree species, as low as a few feet off the ground to more than 115 feet high. In the East, they prefer old-growth trees in large stands. In the Great Plains they use isolated trees and groves. They sometimes rebuild and reuse old nests, or build on squirrel nests.

Nest Description

The male and female both work on nest building, often at a leisurely pace, spending a few days to a few weeks on the project. The nest, which is 10–14 inches across and 5–6 inches high, consists of loosely woven twigs from many tree species. The shallow nest cup is heavily lined with leaves or Spanish moss, becoming nearly flat as it fills with debris over the course of the season.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:1-3 eggs
Egg Length:1.6-1.7 in (4-4.3 cm)
Egg Width:1.3-1.4 in (3.3-3.5 cm)
Incubation Period:29-32 days
Nestling Period:25-35 days
Egg Description:Dull white.
Condition at Hatching:Helpless and covered in white down, with open eyes.
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Behavior

Behavior FlycatchingThough known for their graceful, acrobatic flight, Mississippi Kites also spend time foraging on the ground and in shallow water. They are social birds, often roosting and hunting in groups containing dozens of individuals, and nesting close to other pairs—this is particularly common in the Great Plains. They rarely show aggression to each other, but they are highly aggressive to human intruders and predators (including hawks, crows, and owls) throughout the breeding season. Both males and females will attack people and animals that come too close to the nest. Pairs stay together for the whole breeding season. They usually court before they arrive at nest areas, but occasionally can be seen soaring and swooping as a pair. In some cases a pair will accept a year-old bird as a nest helper.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernMississippi Kites are fairly common in their range, and populations was stable between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population at 300,000 individuals, all of which breed in the United States and migrate through Mexico to their South American wintering grounds. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Mississippi Kite is a U.S.–Canada Stewardship species, and is not listed on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Southeastern populations declined through the early 20th century, in part from shooting and nest destruction. Since then the species has stabilized and expanded in range, as human activities changed landscapes in the East and West: loggers in the Southeast created open areas suitable for foraging, and farmers in western part of its range planted shelterbelt trees suitable for nesting. Nesting kites are tolerant of low to moderate levels of nearby disturbance (such as car traffic, human traffic, and farm machinery) but they may dive at and rarely hit people who come too close. This has created management and public relations challenges where kites have colonized urban areas. Management in the Great Plains includes educating people about urban nesting, maintaining shelterbelts, and protecting cottonwood habitat along rivers. In the Southeast, proposed conservation measures include preserving large tracts of mature forests where kites nest and working with landowners to maintain open areas for foraging.Back to top

Credits

Crossley, Richard, Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan. 2013. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors: Princeton University Press.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Parker, James W. 1999. Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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