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Mississippi Kite

Ictinia mississippiensis ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: ACCIPITRIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Mississippi Kite makes a streamlined silhouette as it careens through the sky on the hunt for small prey, or dive-bombs intruders that come too close to its nest tree. These sleek, pearly gray raptors often hunt together and nest colonially in stands of trees, from windbreaks on southern prairies to old-growth bottomlands in the Southeast (and even on city parks and golf courses). After rearing their chicks they fly all the way to central South America for the winter.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Male
Length
13.4–14.6 in
34–37 cm
Weight
7.6–9.5 oz
216–269 g
Female
Weight
9.8–12 oz
278–339 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Rock Pigeon; smaller than a Peregrine Falcon.
Other Names
  • Milan du Mississippi (French)
  • Milano de Mississippi, Gavilan de Mississippi, Gavilan grisillo, Milano migratorio (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Mississippi Kites in the Southeast lead a different life from kites in prairie states to the west. Western birds usually nest colonially in small woodlands on the prairie, where they can be locally abundant. Eastern birds are less abundant, breed in old-growth forest, and are less likely to nest in colonies.
  • Mississippi Kites have increased in the western part of their range thanks to recent changes in the landscape, such as shelterbelts planted by farmers and ranchers. When they nest in city parks and golf courses it can be problematic since the kites tend to dive-bomb people who come too close to their nests.
  • Nestlings preen each other, arrange nesting material together, and show very little aggression toward their siblings—unusual traits for raptor chicks. At 25-30 days of age they start moving from the nest to nearby tree limbs and back, and they leap into flight several days later.
  • The kite’s nest may be located next to (or even contain) a wasp nest, which probably helps protect the chicks against climbing predators. Smaller bird species—such as Northern Mockingbirds, Blue Jays, and House Sparrows—may nest near or on kite nests, usually coexisting peacefully with the kites.
  • A 1-year-old kite will often hang around the nest of a breeding pair and may help with defending the nest, incubating the eggs, or even brooding the chicks. The pair usually accepts the help, but sometimes chases the yearling away.
  • The oldest Mississippi Kite on record was at least 11 years, 2 months old when it was found in Texas in 1995. It had been banded in 1984 in Kansas.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Mississippi 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.

Food


Insects

Mississippi 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.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–3 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
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.
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.

Nest Placement

Tree

Mississippi 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.

Behavior


Flycatching

Though 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.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Mississippi 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.

Credits

Range Map Help

Mississippi Kite Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Long-distance migrant. Eastern and western breeding populations converge in the extreme south-central U.S. and continue along eastern Mexico toward their South American breeding grounds.

Find This Bird

To find Mississippi Kites, head to the Southeast or the southern prairies of Texas and Oklahoma during the summer. Keep your eyes raised, as these birds spend a lot of their time in the air. Though they can sometimes be very high, they often sail on the wind not much above treetop level, where they zero in on flying insects to catch and devour them on the wing. In the Southeast you’ll have your best luck around large wooded wetlands, but in Texas and Oklahoma don’t discount urban settings, where you may spot them soaring above athletic fields or perching on tall buildings.

You Might Also Like

Nothing to Do But Soar?: The curious expansion of the Mississippi Kite. Spring 2012 Living Bird magazine

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