Occupying areas both urban and rural, the Mississippi Kite is a gregarious raptor that can nest colonially and is known for aggressive defense of its nest. Flocks of hundreds of Mississippi Kites can form during fall migration to Central and South America. These flocks may stay at a roost until favorable winds prompt them to continue their journey.
Although some yearling kites breed, most do not breed until two years of age. Bad weather can cause significant nesting failures. Lifespan in kites is not well understood, though they are thought to live ten or eleven years as a rule of thumb.
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Description of the Mississippi Kite
The Mississippi Kite has dark bluish-gray upperparts with a paler head, pointed reddish-brown wings, a long, dark tail, and red eyes.
Very similar to male. May show some white on other tail feather and vent.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles have dark reddish streaking on underparts and banded tails.
Wooded streams as well as suburban areas.
Insects and some small animals.
Forages by catching insects in the air or on the ground.
Breeds in the southeastern and south-central U.S. and winters in South America. Populations appear stable.
Mississippi Kites are acrobatic flyers adept at catching flying insects.
Mississippi Kites often nest in loose colonies or clumps.
A two-syllable “feee-few” call is given, as well as an occasional longer call.
Male Northern Harriers have broader wings and white rump patches.
The nest is a platform of sticks and green leaves placed in a tree.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 29-31 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 28-35 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Mississippi Kite
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Mississippi Kite – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
ICTINIA MISISIPPIENSIS (Wilson)
As I have never seen this kite in life, I shall have to rely wholly on the observations of others. It is a bird of the Lower Austral Zone, being seen chiefly in the Southern States from South Carolina and northern Florida to Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Walter Colvin writes to me that he found this kite quite common in Barber County, Kans. “A bend of the Medicine Lodge River, where the timber consisted of elm, cottonwood, walnut, white locust, black locust, redwood, mulberry, boxelder, and cedar, which grew in parklike fashion, seemed to be a favorable location. Here more than a dozen kites were seen in the air at once.”
Although rather widely distributed within the region outlined above, it seems to be localized in breeding communities, rather thickly populated, and to be entirely absent from apparently similar intervening territory. It also seems to gather in very large numbers, at other times, on particularly favorable feeding grounds.
Spring: The Mississippi kite is a summer resident in the United States, arriving from the south in March or April. Dr. Frank M. Chapman (1891) witnessed a heavy migration near Corpus Christi, Tex., of which he writes: “This species was first observed April 24, when nine individuals were seen flying northward. The following day we crossed a great flight of these birds. They could be seen to the limit of vision both to the north and south, and about twenty five were in sight at one time. They flew northward at varying heights; some were within gunshot, while others were so far above the earth that they looked no larger than swallows.”
Audubon (1840), in his usual flowery style, describes the coming of spring in southern Louisiana, where he says that this kite arrives “about the middle of April, in small parties of five or six, and confines itself to the borders of deep woods, or to those near plantations, not far from the shores of rivers, lakes, or bayous. It never moves into the interior of the country, and in this respect resembles Falco furcatuz. Plantations lately cleared, and yet covered with tall dying girted trees, placed near a creek or bayou, seem to suit it best.”
G. W. Stevens tells me that it arrives in northern Oklahoma from May 1 to 15. And Charles J. Pennock gives me his earliest date for northern Florida as March 1. He says that during the spring this kite frequents “the neighborhood of the more dense, low hammocks, while later in the season it might be found in the vicinity of the rivers and ponds.”
Nesting: Although the Mississippi kite often builds its nest in the top of some tall tree, Mr. Colvin has sent me some notes on several nests that he found in the valley of the Medicine River, Kans., which were at rather low elevations. He refers to one nest that “was 50 feet up in the outer branches of a cottonwood”; hut the others. ten or more, found on two or more days spent in the kite country, were in low elms or walnut trees. The timber in which the kites were nesting on May 31 and June 7, 1931, “was made up largely of elm, walnut, chinaberry, and elder. Most of the trees were stunted by the wind and storms and most of the elms were blighted.” One nest in an elm was “situated on a limb about 12 feet from the ground, small and compactly built of sticks of trees, 6 to 8 inches in length. The usual sticks were one-fourth to three-eighths of an inch in diameter and broken clean at both ends. The nest was lined with green walnut leaves” (p1. 22). Another nest was “in the upper branches of a small walnut tree some 18 feet from the ground.” Two other nests mentioned were on horizontal limbs of dwarf elms, 14 and 18 feet up, one of these measured 10 inches in diameter and 8 inches in height; it had “a small quantity of dried plants in the center” and was lined with green walnut leaves.
Mr. Stevens tells me that in northern Oklahoma it nests in scattering trees, 12 to 40 feet up, usually in the larger forks hut sometimes in the smaller forks and occasionally on horizontal limbs. Elms are most commonly chosen, but also black jack oaks and occasionally cottonwoods, hackberries, and soapberries. He says the nests are always lined with green leaves, often with twigs attached; these may come from the nesting tree or another, commonly the sumac (l?lius glabra).
Albert F. Ganier has sent me excellent photographs of three nests taken near Vickshurg, Miss. One of these was 80 feet up in a sweetgum tree, “located at the crest of a ridge in a wooded pasture”; it was a well-built nest, containing much Spanish moss; it had been used the previous year and was occupied the following year. Another nest was 60 feet up in a red oak on a ridge in thin woods; this was the “only nest of 18 examined that was built in an oak; they usually select the sweetgum because of its dense foliage and the tall erect form of the tree.”
In his excellent article (1902) on this kite he describes the nestbuilding activities as follows:
On looking up I was surprised to find them soaring high in the air, apparently with nothing more upon their mind than to satisfy their appetites. Suddenly, however, one of them remained stationary for a second, then with half-closed wings came swift as an arrow down through the trees and reapl)eared above my head with an oak twig In his talons; wheeling, he sailed swiftly upward to a crotch in a gum tree, which showed a bunch of sticks, the beginning of a nest. Only for a moment did he remain; then, dropping over one side of Ihe nest, he sailed upward and rejoined his mate.
For over an hour and a half I lay there and watched them slowly constructing their nest; both birds worked, darting in among the trees as on the first occasion, and reappearing with either a twig or spray of green leaves. At last, as the midday hour began to cast short shadows, one of the birds perched on the edge of the nest, while its mate lit on the topmost branch of a cottonwood tree some two hundred yards away.
He says that the nests are very difficult to see as the birds “show a great preference for the tip-top branches of gum and cottonwood trees whose dense foliage is almost impenetrable to the eye.” One big cottonwood tree that he felled and measured was over 2½ feet in diameter and 131 feet high; the nest in it had been 119 feet above the ground.
Another nest that he examined was “composed of sticks and twigs with a thick lining of locust, gum, thorn and other green leaves”; it measured “25 inches from tip to tip of the longest twigs, while the width of the nest proper was 14 inches, the area covered with green leaves being 6 inches square. The nest as usual was almost flat on top.~~
In certain parts of Texas this kite nests in mesquite trees at such extremely low elevations as 4, 5, or 6 feet above the ground, making small nests lined with mesquite leaves. In Louisiana, according to George E. Beyer (Bendire, 1892), “the nests are placed in the tops of loblolly pines (Pi’mus taeda) or white oaks (Quercua aTha), at a height of from 50 to 60 feet. Pine woods are the favorite localities.”
The highest nests of which I can find any record are reported by Arthur T. Wayne (1910) in South Carolina; one was 111 feet and another 135 feet from the ground in the tops of gigantic short-leaf pines. He says that a pair nested within a mile of his house for ten years and for five years used the same nest. Other observers have noted that these kites often use the same nest for several years in succession. They also often return to their own nest after a lapse of a few years and sometimes appropriate an old crow’s nest. The great variation in the height of the nest indicates that the kites select their nesting site where they can find the best food supply regardless of timber conditions, and then build their nest in the highest tree available. If their nest is robbed they will lay a second set, either in the old nest or a new one, about two weeks later.
Eggs: The Mississippi kite lays only one or two eggs, rarely three, with some variation in different parts of its range. Mr. Ganier tells me that in Mississippi he has found two eggs or two young in only two out of some 13 or more cases; all the other nests contained only one egg or young. Mr. Stevens, referring to OkIaboina, says in his notes, “one occasionally, two usually, and three very rarely”; in some 500 nests examined during seven years, he has found only three sets of three. Of 40 nests under observation by Dr. George M. Sutton, 38 held two eggs and two held one egg each. Most of the sets in collections consist of two eggs, but there are very few sets of three. The eggs vary in shape from ovate to roundedovate or nearly oval. The shell is smooth but without gloss when fresh. The color is white or pale bluish white. They are normally unmarked and are often more or less nest stained, and some may appear to be faintly spotted, but such markings are, I believe, wholly adventitious; true pigment markings must be exceedingly rare. The measurements of 50 eggs average 41.3 by 34 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 45.7 by 35.2, 44.5 by 36.5, 37.7 by 33.8, and 41 by 31.2 millimeters.
Young: Dr. George M. Sutton writes to me that “the period of incubation is 31 or 32 days. An egg laid on May 18 hatched June 18. In an attitude of repose the young bird rests on the outer part of its feet only. The cry is a thin, feeble squeal, a hairthin sound.” Both sexes assist in incubation and in the care of the young. Mr. Ganier (1902) writes:
The nest could Idainly be seen from several points and I soon made out the form of a young bird oa the edge of it, looking out among the trees an4 occasionally spreading its wings as though Impatient to be free.
While still looking, a shadow glided through the trees and an old bird lit on the edge of the nest with something In her beak; slowly the young bird turned around to receive its food and then assumed its old position. The parent bird lingered but a minute, then glided away mis silently as she had come.
I sat on a log and watched them for an hour, the parent birds taking turns at feeding the young one, whose restless wings seemed to trouble him much more than his appetite.
Plumages: I have seen no very small young of this kite, but Dr. Sutton describes it for me as follows: “The natal down is pure white, with a small faint spot of huffy brown on the nape and a wash of the same pale brown over the back and upper surface of the wings. The area in front of and about the eyes is dull gray, the marking occupying almost precisely the same position as the black facial marking of the adult. Bill dull blue-gray. Cere dull brownish orange.
Corners of mouth light orange. Feet pale, clear yellow-orange, with gray claws. Eyes dull gray-brown, with bluish pupils. Eyelids dull gray.” The juvenal plumage appears first on the scapulars, then on the wings and tail, and then on the back and the sides of the breast; the last of the down is seen on the head and belly.
In fresh Juvenal plumage the head is white, streaked with black; the back and wing coverts are sooty black, almost clear black, with narrow edgings of “russet” or huffy white; the scapulars are broadly banded with white; the greater wing coverts, all the rectrices, and all the remiges are jet black, tipped with white, most broadly on the tertials and scapulars and most narrowly on the tail; the under wing coverts are “pale ochraceous-buff” spotted with rusty brown; the tail feathers are deeply notched or barred with white on the inner webs; the under parts are from “cinnamon-buff” to buffy white, heavily spotted with browns, the breast feathers being centrally “hazel” surrounded by blackish brown and broadly edged with ”cinnamon: buff.” This plumage, with considerable fading of the browns and buffs, is worn only through the summer and fall. During the first winter and spring progress is made toward maturity by a gradual molt of the contour plumage; but considerable white still shows on the under parts owing to basally white breast feathers, the white increasing on the belly and under tail coverts. One-year-old birds in May, July, and August still retain the juvenal wings and tail and show the last of the first winter plumage on the under parts. Apparently the adult plumage is assumed at this first postnuptial molt, which is complete and much prolonged; I believe that the wings and tail are not molted until after the birds go south. Mr. Stevens has seen birds breeding in this immature plumage. Adults probably have a similar, prolonged, annual molt.
Food: Mr. Stevens says in his notes that these kites feed on the wing, snatching locusts from plants and seizing cicadas in flight. A flock of from 3 to 20 will sail about a person, a horseman, or a team, traveling through grassy flats and bushy places, and seize the cicadas as they are scared up. The insect is grasped in the claws and eaten in the air. Usually only the abdomen of the cicada is eaten and the remainder is dropped; the wings and legs of locusts are often picked off and the remainder swallowed. lie has found the remains of toads, mice, and young rabbits in the nests with young.
Audubon (1840) graphically describes its feeding as follows:
He glances towards the earth with his fiery eye; sweeps along, now with the gentle breeze, now against it; seizes here and there the high-flying giddy bug, and allays his hunyer without fatigue to wing or talon. Suddenly he spies some creeping thing, that changes, like the cameleon from vivid green to du]l brown, to escape his notice. It is the red-throated panting lizard that has made Its way to the highest branch of a tree in quest of food. Casting upwards a sidelong look of fear, it remains motionless, so well does It know the prowess of the bird of prey; hut its caution is vain; it has been perceived, Its fate is sealed, and the next moment it Is swept away.
All writers seem to agree that the Mississippi kite feeds almost exclusively on the larger insects, such as cicadas, locusts, grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, dragonflies, and large beetles, hut small snakes, lizards, and frogs are sometimes taken. Birds apparently are never molested, and small birds show no fear of it.
Behavior: Audubon (1840) writes:
Its flight is graceful, vigorous, protracted, and often extended to a great height, the Fork-tailed Hawk being the only species that can compete with it. At times It floats in the air as if motionless, or sails in broad regular circles, when, suddenly closing its wings, It slides along to some distance, and rene’vs Its curves. New it sweeps in deep and long undulations, with the swiftness of an arrow, passing almost ~vlthin touching distance of a branch on which it has observed a small lizard, or an insect it longs for, but from which it again ascends disappointed. New it is seen to move in hurried zig-zags, as if pursued by a dangerous enemy, sometimes seeming to turn over and ever like a Tumbling Pigeon. Again it is observed flying around the trunk of a tree to secure large insects, sweeping xvith astonishing velocity. While travelling it moves in the desultory manner followed hy Swallows; but at other times It is seen soaring at a great elevation among the large flocks of Carrion Crows and Turkey Buzzards, joined by the Forktailed Hawk, dashing at the former, and giving them chase, as If in play, until these cowardly-scavengers sweep downwards, abandoning this to them disagreeable sport to the Hawks, who now continue to gambol undisturbed. When in pursuit of a large insect or a small reptile, it turns its body sidewise, throws out its legs, expands its talons, and generally seizes its prey In an Instant. It feeds while on the wing, apparently with as much ease and comfort, as when alighted on the branch of a tall tree. It never alights on the earth, at least I have never seen it do so, except when wounded, and then It appears extremely awkward. It never attacks birds or quadrupeds of any kind, with the view of destroying them for food, although it will chase a fox to a considerahle distance, screaming loudly all the while, and soon forces a Crow to retreat to the woods.
Dr. E. W. Nelson (187Th) says:
Their power of sight is truly wonderful. I saw them repeatedly dart with unerring aim upon some luckless grasshopper, from an elevation of at least one hundred yards.
No less remarkable Is their power of flight. ~ repeatedly saw them dart down from a great height with such velocity that it would seem an impossibility for them to escape being dashed to pieces on the ground, but Instead, when within a few feet of the earth, they would suddenly spread their wings and the reaction would lift them with olmost equal rapidity to about one-half their former elevation. They were so shy that it was impossible to get within gunshot of them.
Although a gentle, inoffensive bird at ordinary times, it can put up a stiff fight when wounded. Wilson (1832) tells of one that fastened its claws so firmly in his hand that he had to cut the tendons in its leg to release its grip. It is brave too in the defense of its nest, driving away such predatory birds as crows and jays. It will even occasionally attack a man that is climbing to its nest, as Mr. Ganier (1902) relates:
I had scarcely made half the distance when three or four Kites began to circle about on the level with the tree-top, and as I sented myself to rest on a branch, twelve feet belo,v the nest, one of the birds began to dart at me. It was a very pugnacious fellow and would circle around within twenty feet of me until it would catch my eye; then, pausing for a moment, it would dart directly at me, to within six or eight feet of my face, when It would swoop suddenly upward, emitting at the same time a sharp shrieking cry. This performance was kept up until I descended, the birds darting closer as I reached the nest.
Voice: The Mississippi kite is usually a rather silent bird except when the vicinity of its nest is invaded. Mr. Stevens refers to the alarm note at such times as a whistling cry of three or four syllables, the first and last on a lower key and the middle on a higher key, “longer, more forceful and tremulous”; it is the only note he has heard. C. J. Pennock describes it as a “clear but not loud call, lcee-e-e, repeated sometimes two or three times in succession.” Dr. Sutton tells me: “The usual cry of the kite I should write down as phee-phew. I heard this cry hundreds of times. I did not hear a three-syllabled cry. In mating the birds sometimes chipper at each other, a cry similar to one of the marsh hawk’s calls.”
Fall: Mr. Stevens says that these kites leave Oklahoma in rather large flocks in September, usually by the fifteenth. Mr. Ganier (1902) writes:
Near the middle of August the hirds seem to be very active at feeding; evidently they are then preparing for their southward journey. A specimen shot in the last days of August was so fat that I found it Impossible to make a first-class skin of It; the breastbone sank far below the level of the breast meat.
As the first days of September approach the last individuals may be seen slowly flying southward; then the woods lose their charm to mc for the sky has lost its gem, the Mississippi Kite.
Range: Southeastern United States; accidental north to Pennsylvania and New Jersey and south to Guatemala. Only slightly migratory.
The Mississippi kite breeds north to northern Texas (Tascosa and Lipscomb); Kansas (Sun City, Medicine Lodge, and Baldwin City) ; Missouri (Webster and Howell Counties) ; probably formerly southern Illinois (Mount Carmel) ; Georgia (probably Marshallville and Augusta); and South Carolina (Columbia and Charleston). East to South Carolina (Charleston, Yemassee, and probably Bluifton); and Florida (Waukeenab and Gainesville). South to Florida (Gainesville, St. Marks, Whitfield, and Pensacola) ; southern Mississippi (Bay St. Louis) ; Louisiana (probably New Orleans and Avery Island) ; and southern Texas (Beaumont, Sour Lake, Giddings, Austin, San Antonio, and Sheffield). West to western Texas (Sheffield, San Angelo, and Tascosa).
Winter range: In winter the species has been detected north at least to Texas (Eagle Pass and Nunnsville) and Florida (Panasofkee Lake and Fort Myers).
Migration: It is not apparent that this species makes a regular migration, but probably in winter it withdraws to some extent from the northern part of its breeding range. It has been noted to arrive at Copan, Okla., on March 16; at Neosho Falls, Kans., on May 5; and at Huger, S. C., on May 9.
Casual records: Among casual or accidental records of occurrence are the following: Woodhouse stated he obtained two in New Mexico, probably in the Canadian River section (Cassin, 1860) Aiken reported seeing one near Colorado Springs, Cob., during the summer of 18Th; a specimen was taken near Omaha, Nebr., in November 1912; one was recorded from Grinnell, Iowa, on October 4, 1886; Pindar (1925) records it as a rare summer visitant in Fulton County, Ky., but gives no details; one was reported from Benns Creek, Knox County, md., on September 18, 1911; one was seen on October 20, 1852, in Chester County, Pa.; several observers, including Dr. Witmer Stone, reported seeing one at Cape May, N. J., on May 30, 1924; and one was taken near Andrews, N. C., on May 26, 1893. Specimens have been reported from Wisconsin, but in one way or another they are considered doubtful (Kumlien and Hollister, 1903), and it is probable that others of the sight records listed above are open to question.
The Sennett collection is reported to contain a specimen collected at Tampico, Mexico, on May 17, 1888. while Salvin (1861) recorded a specimen received by him from Coban. Guatemala.
Egg dates: Texas, Oklahoma. and Kansas: 95 records, March 15 to June 25; 48 records, June 3 to 12.