May 1, 2020

Mississippi Kites

By Ben Hendrickson

Photos courtesy of the author.

One hot July day while conducting fieldwork in far southern Illinois, we witnessed a breathtaking natural phenomenon. As we drove, my technician spotted a solitary Mississippi kite hunting over a fallow agricultural field. We pulled onto a farm road to observe the aerial acrobatics more closely when we noticed a second kite, then a third. After a few moments, we were surrounded by more than 150 Mississippi kites in the middle of a feeding frenzy, swooping and barrel-rolling to catch dragonflies then consuming their prey mid-flight. Although not a particularly vocal species, the air was filled with a cacophony of their distinct “Phee-phew” calls as the massive kettle of kites feasted. The spectacle lasted until our road ended and the drove of birds slowly moved northward, continuously feeding as they traveled up the Mississippi River. 

Mississippi kites are crow-sized neotropical-migrant raptors, easily identified by their striking gray and silver plumage, long, pointed wings, and square-tipped tail. These sleek birds of prey are renowned for their buoyant and graceful flying ability, sometimes being described as “floating on air.” They are aerial insectivores, feeding primarily on large flying insects and hunting either by hawking from a perch or, more often, on-the-wing while soaring. Highly social by nature, Mississippi kites sometimes feed gregariously and can occasionally be found nesting in loose colonies. They build loose nests from large twigs in a wide variety of tree species and at varying heights and in Illinois prefer tall trees such as sweetgum, maple and sycamore. Mississippi kites frequently return to successful nest sites multiple years in a row.

A biologist holds a black and grey small bird of prey. A grassy area with trees are in the background.

Mississippi kites breed throughout the American southeast, Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Great Plains and into the American southwest; however, records of breeding pairs far outside their historic range are becoming increasingly common. Arriving to their breeding grounds already paired between April and May, they remain in North America until late August when they depart for their wintering grounds in central South America.

The natural history and population dynamics of the species vary between the eastern and western portions of their breeding range. While Mississippi kite populations in the Great Plains and southwest grew and expanded geographically throughout the 1800s and 1900s, the story differed to the east.

Although records are scarce, the species was thought to be abundant in the southeast and Mississippi Alluvial Valley throughout the 1800s. Beginning in the early 1900s, reports of widespread decline of the eastern population began surfacing. In southern Illinois, where Mississippi kites were common as late as the 1870s, they had “virtually disappeared” by the late 1920s. This dramatic decline is primarily attributed to habitat loss following widespread clearing of forests for agricultural practices. By the 1950s, however, Mississippi kite populations in the east began rebounding. It is likely that those same changes in land-use practices that initially caused the species to decline eventually created new opportunities for foraging and nesting as fields were left to fallow and forests allowed to regrow. Mississippi kites are now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as Least Concern federally and in most states as their populations continue to thrive.    

In Illinois, Mississippi kites are currently listed as state-threatened, although many Illinois birders might be surprised by that listing. There is extensive anecdotal evidence suggesting a large population of kites in the state’s southern counties, especially those bordering the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Since state law requires scientific evidence to change a species’ conservation status, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources partnered with Dr. Mike Eichholz of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale to conduct a study on Mississippi kites in southern Illinois. The study was funded in part by Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act Project W-190-R.

As a Master’s student in the Eichholz lab at SIU, I have spent the past two breeding seasons examining questions related to the distribution, abundance and habitat selection of Mississippi kites in southern Illinois with the ultimate goal of providing data that will inform management decisions regarding the species status in the state. Fieldwork for this study involved extensive searches for Mississippi kites and their nests, careful monitoring of nesting activity, and measurement of nest-site vegetation characteristics in order to determine the species’ preferred breeding habitat. Using nest-site information and a large dataset of kite behavioral observations and location records, we are utilizing Maximum Entropy Modeling to estimate the amount of suitable nesting habitat available to Mississippi kites in Illinois. Then, using published home-range data, we can estimate the number of breeding pairs the region can support. We also attempted trapping and radio-tracking of adult kites in 2019, successfully capturing one female and tracking her for one month.  

A small, crow sized, black and grey bird of prey perches on a branch of a tree. A blue sky with wisps of clouds is in the background.

Illinois birders interested in observing the incredible acrobatics and beautiful plumage of the Mississippi kite should have little issue finding them on warm summer days. Look to open fields and wetlands for soaring kites, and to tall trees and snags along forest edges for perching birds. In our study area, we were most likely to find substantial numbers of Mississippi kites throughout the forested bottomlands, wetlands, and open fields near the Mississippi, Ohio and Cache rivers, and even into the forested uplands of the Shawnee National Forest’s Mississippi Bluffs district. One of the most interesting findings of our research so far is the number of Mississippi kites in developed areas such as Carbondale, Murphysboro, Chester and Metropolis. We frequently found kites nesting in front yards in busy residential areas, possibly as a mechanism to escape predation from nest-predators more common in exurban areas. Although such a common occurrence in the western populations that kites are sometimes considered pests in urban parks and golf courses, this “urbanization” of the species is not well documented to the east.

Overall, Mississippi kite populations across their historic range in southern Illinois appear to be doing well, with urban areas seemingly suiting the species’ nesting needs thoroughly. Outside of the state’s southernmost counties, they are frequently reported at Rend Lake and near East St. Louis, and occasionally throughout central Illinois. Reports from Chicago are not uncommon, and a pair has been reported to nest annually as far north as Rockford. Your best bet, though, is to head down to southern Illinois for your best chance at spotting this beautiful bird of prey. 

Ben Hendrickson is a graduate student with the Department of Zoology and Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He is working with Dr. Mike Eichholz to examine the breeding Mississippi kites in far southern Illinois. Upon completion of his Masters’ degree, he will begin a PhD in Biological Sciences at the University of North Texas where he will study the social ecology of Harris’s hawks.