Graceful and valiant raptors of the Edwards Plateau
The vast majority of my memories as a budding young naturalist in the Southern Enclave revolve around the summer months when I spent countless hours in the field observing wildlife while they were at their peak. I fondly remember an avian species of raptor that can not only be described as graceful, but can also be defined by its valiant demeanor.
Where and when to find them
The Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis) is a medium-sized raptor species whose natural summer range includes most of the southeastern United States, including all of the Panhandle ecoregions, the Upper Trans-Pecos and Upper Edwards Plateau in Texas. It can be defined as a true “tropical species” as it resides in southern Mexico during the cold winter months.
Typically, this migratory bird is one of the last species to arrive in late spring, often not appearing in Texas until mid-May or even later.
What they look like
Adult Mississippi kites can generally be described as having an overall shade of gray all over their body, including the head and neck. The lower parts are the lightest, while the upper parts are considerably darker.
The tail, which is a solid black, is by far the darkest section of this variety. The bill is dark and the large eyes, which are outlined in black, are dark red in color. The legs and feet vary in coloration from yellow to almost red. Immature specimens do not have light gray underparts, but instead have a light beige background adorned with large random brown vertical streaks.
Mature specimens are thirteen to seventeen inches tall with a wingspan of about three feet.
Unlike most other varieties of raptors, this type can often be seen congregating in large groups of up to twenty individuals. This socialization occurs not only for nesting purposes, but also for feeding purposes. This species consumes a huge amount of insects, especially cicadas and grasshoppers, and it will chase its prey together during its flight.
For me, it was, and still is, thrilling to see several kites chasing a fleeing cicada and knowing that the hunt is over hearing the shrill sound of the prey as it is overpowered. There are numerous reports of Mississippi kites dragging cattle in an attempt to find food that hoofed mammals have aroused.
A monogamous couple
This species of raptor mates in the tropics during the breeding season, with the male and female remaining monogamous. The nest is built by both sexes and is made of sticks and lined with leaves and grass, as well as a few pieces of litter.
Often, this nest is built high in the tallest trees available, up to over a hundred feet above the ground. The female lays one to three whitish eggs which are then incubated in turn by both parents.
This incubation period lasts about a month, and the chicks stay in the nest, guarded by both parents, for another month. It is during this time that the adults will vigorously defend the nest against any creature they consider a threat by diving towards the perceived predator, only to move away at the very last second.
The size of the “predator” does not matter and many adults will even dive on vehicles or lawn mowers.
The Mississippi kite is a common bird whose population appears to be on the rise. Look for this species in areas where large trees have been planted, especially city parks, but beware, a calculated dive from a disturbed parent can be quite exhilarating!