If you’ve spent any amount of time outside this summer, you have probably heard or seen a Mississippi Kite.
The Mississippi Kite’s call is a high two-note whistle “phee-phew.” The first note is quick while the second longer note fades to a lower pitch. Adult birds are slender in shape with pointed wings. Their length can reach up to 14.6 inches, and the weight tops off around 9.5 ounces. The wing tips and tail are black in color while the rest of the body lightens to a pale gray-white on the head, and their eyes are a deep red. Juveniles of this species have a streaked white and brown coloration on their chests and underwings and display banded tails. Juvenile’s eyes are pale yellow.
While adults are known for their graceful and sometimes acrobatic flight, Mississippi Kite fledglings are often found on the ground during this time of year. A fledgling is a juvenile bird that has begun trying out its wings. As many of us were not able to ride a bike without training wheels the first time, fledgling birds also need a bit of practice as they begin to leave the nest. At the zoo, we frequently receive phone calls and visits from guests interested in helping fledglings that appear to be injured, abandoned or lost. As with all wild animals, the best thing you can do is simply leave the animal alone.
Leave it alone? Yes, leave it alone! As a person who loves animals, I can sympathize with anyone who comes across a fledgling. Seeing animals in what we consider a vulnerable state is not very much fun. However, I always remind myself and others, that fledglings are near their nest site and therefore near their mom or dad. Mom and Dad birds can do a much better job at nurturing their baby than a human can. Mississippi Kites are also notoriously territorial of their nesting sites and sometimes dive-bomb well-intended humans and other perceived threats who approach their babies.
If you happen upon a Mississippi Kite — or any raptor or bird of prey, such as hawks, owls, falcons and more — on the ground, take a minute to observe the bird’s behavior, from a safe distance, and determine if the bird is injured or if it’s a fledgling. Adult raptors will typically fly away when approached by a human, unless they are protecting their food or babies. Fledglings may walk, hop or flutter around. Keep pets and kids at a safe distance. If the bird is injured, please call Kansas Fish and Wildlife Services or your nearest wildlife rehabilitation clinic. Lee Richardson Zoo is not permitted nor licensed to provide rehabilitation services for these birds, so we cannot take them in.
Mississippi Kite nests can be found in almost any tree species; in the eastern part of their habitat range, they prefer old-growth trees with nests reaching up to 115 feet or higher. In the Great Plains, they will build nests in isolated trees and groves. Male and female pairs will build their nests together, sometimes spending as much as two weeks constructing the space. Pairs will stay together for the entire breeding season and can even be found courting before they arrive at their nest site. Some breeding pairs will accept a year-old kite as a nest-helper.
The nest is typically 14 inches across and five to six inches deep, consisting of loosely woven twigs. They line their nests with leaves or moss. Sometimes they will rebuild an old nest or take over squirrel nests. Kites will lay up to three eggs in one clutch. Eggs are white and can measure up to nearly two inches in length and an inch and a half in width. The incubation period is around 30 days. Once hatched, the nestling will stay in the nest for up to 35 days before beginning to fledge. Adults will continue to feed their young for at least eight weeks after hatching.
Mississippi Kite diet consists mostly of large flying insects such as cicadas, grasshoppers, katydids, beetles, dragonflies and large moths. They will eat other smaller insects and, occasionally, frogs, toads, snakes, bats, rodents, small birds and turtles. Adults will catch their prey in one foot and eat them while soaring in the sky. They can also be seen diving down low to the ground to catch prey flushed by herds of grazing animals.
As the summer comes to an end, we will see less and less of these birds until their return next year. Until then, keep an eye out for the aerial skills of the Mississippi Kite, and an ear out for their distinct call, all while keeping a respectful distance from nesting sites and fledglings.
Emily Sexson is an education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.