If it's August in southwest Kansas, it must be kite season. Mississippi kites, that is. Floating and spiraling upward in the wide open sky, Mississippi kites are a seasonal resident in our area. They winter farther along the Gulf Coast and down into South America, but when it comes to nesting and rearing their young, we've got what they need.
These hawk-like birds migrate back to southwest Kansas each spring to nest and raise their young. They utilize the large trees found throughout the city, and travel out to the prairie and agricultural fields during the day to hunt for grasshoppers and locusts. Kites are named for their smooth and buoyant flight, and spend a good part of their day circling on thermal currents high in the sky. They can perch on power lines and poles watching for prey.
For the most part, kites and people get along pretty well, and unless you are a birdwatcher, you may not even know they are in the neighborhood. Come late summer though, when the chicks are in the nest, a small percentage of adult birds have a tendency to get a little overprotective and take to diving at passers-by they feel are getting too close to their nest. They rarely hit their target, but even at their slight weight of just 9 ounces, they can be a bit intimidating with their sharp talons, hooked beak and intense eyes. The solution to this short-lived onslaught is to avoid the area beneath the nest altogether, or to wear a hat or carry a newspaper or umbrella over your head if you must pass underneath.
Once the chicks leave the nest, the parents no longer feel the need to protect the area and the diving stops. This, however, leads to the next stage of human-kite encounters.
The majority of kite chicks fledge from the nest in mid-August. Like human babies, who need a few days to master the art of walking, it may take a bird more than just one or two tries to master the art of flying, and as such, these youngsters may end up on the ground for several hours to a day. When that ground happens to be in your yard, you may be surprised to discover these unusual looking visitors so close at hand. If you have pets or kids, they will most likely bring the kite to your attention, and you'll quickly begin to wonder what you should do with it.
The best advice: As little as possible! If the bird is not in immediate danger of injury from cars or other animals, leaving it where it is will ensure that its parents can find and continue to care for it. If it is in imminent danger, you can try to move it a short distance to a safer location, perhaps even moving it up off the ground onto a branch or nearby tree, bush or fence. If you are brave enough to try to pick it up, keep the following tips in mind and you will have a better chance of coming out unscathed. Leather gloves are a good idea, and keep in mind that the talons on the feet (more than the beak) are what you need to be wary of. To calm the bird, and make it easier to pick up, cover it carefully by laying a pillowcase, towel or piece of clothing over it. Then you can easily pick it up from behind and keep those grabby talons pointed in the other direction. Set it on its feet in your new location, and gently remove the cover and back off. Then leave it alone.
Remember these birds are federally protected because of their great value as predators of insects, and cannot be kept, even temporarily, by unlicensed individuals. Taking it into your home prevents the parents from providing care, which is what the chick needs most at this point.
In most cases, a kite on the ground in mid-August that appears unable to fly is probably not injured, but only needs a little more time to strengthen its flight muscles and get the hang of flying. If it is still covered primarily in downy feathers, it's probably too young to fly, and still needs parental care. Getting it back into a nest (which are usually too high to access) is often not an option, but a makeshift box or crate secured at a lower level may do the trick.
Injured birds (broken wing, etc.) require a different course of action, and we are happy to advise you if you give us a call. Please call before you bring the bird to the zoo as nine times out of 10 the bird doesn't need to be "rescued," it just needs time, and maybe a little help with protection from human or pet interaction while it gets its wings under it.
The little bit of inconvenience we may experience as a result of kites nesting nearby is repaid may times over by the number of insects they consume. Enjoy your close encounter by taking the opportunity to watch these sooty-eyed hunters as they turn from gray fluff into sleek, skilled white and gray bug busters. Come fall, they will head south for the winter, not to return until the spring for another nesting season.
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