It is Mississippi Kite Time Again
Ro Wauer, August 17, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003
Once again Mississippi kites can be found over our towns and woodlots, soaring, diving, and tumbling in true acrobatic style. Although a few of these mid-sized raptors actually nest in suitable sites in the Golden Crescent, such as at Victoria's Riverside Park, many found this time of year are southbound migrants that loaf at choice feeding sites en route to their wintering homes in Argentina and Paraguay, South America.
Their principal food supply includes the readily available flying insects, such as cicadas, that frequent the upper foliage of our abundant trees. Towns like Victoria, Beeville, Cuero, Goliad, Edna, Refugio, and others with lots of tall trees offer excellent hunting grounds and also overnight roosting sites. Hunting Mississippi kites provide us with marvelous opportunities to watch one of nature's most exciting raptors at work. Often it will dive with breathtaking speed, swoop, and tumble, sometimes somersault in its aerial maneuvers. An observer can actually watch it capture prey in midair or off the foliage, and then consume its catch in flight, unlike most other raptors that feed on a post or on the ground. It will hold its prey with one talon and eat its soft body parts, usually discarding the wings and head. It is like attending a circus performance, free of charge and often without even leaving our yards.
Cicadas are usually common in late summer and fall, and, because they often fly out in the open, they are one of the easiest of prey. The kite will take numerous other prey species as well. Other large flying insects, such as grasshoppers and various beetles, as well as bats, lizards, amphibians, and small snakes are all included in the Mississippi kite diet. They often hawk over fields where cattle are grazing. The cattle scare up insects that are then taken in flight by the faster kites.
Mississippi kites are smaller than our red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, but larger than our wintering American kestrel. They can easily be identified by their buoyant flight as well as their slate gray plumage, black slightly forked tail, and pointed wings. In a way, they look a lot like a giant swallow. And with binoculars, you can usually see their ruby red eyes against a black eye ring and gray head. Juveniles are mottled brown and gray with a barred tail. Their voice, seldom heard away from their nesting grounds, is a high, thin, descending "shi chiew."
Mississippi kites reside in Texas only during the spring and summer months, arriving in the United States in early to mid-March. Migrants often are found in great flocks that sometime number in the hundreds. Breeding birds occur west to east from New Mexico to the Carolinas. They may reside as far north as Oklahoma and Kansas and along the Mississippi River to southern Illinois, but south only to our area. Nesting occurs in woodland areas, in riparian habitats as well as grooves in prairie situations. In some cases, several pairs may nest near one another in loose colonies. After nesting they usually congregate at choice feeding sites, and then they will usually roost together on tall tree with open branches.
Although spring migrants pass quickly by, post-nesting birds seem to be in less of a hurry and will linger at choice feeding sites for several days or weeks. Peak numbers occur in mid-August to early September, then decline until mid-October when all have moved south.
Right now is that time of year. So enjoy our aerial acrobats!