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I had that strange feeling something was following me as I walked along the dry tree-lined creek just north of the Canadian River. An eerie phee-phew, phee-phew sound was coming from somewhere behind me, making the hair on the back of my neck tingle. It had rained very little in the Panhandle that spring and every step I took sent a couple of those big yellow grasshoppers flying off to safety ahead of me. As I brushed by a clump of sagebrush, a cicada zoomed skyward with its rattlesnake-like buzz, unnerving me even more. A shadow suddenly passed over me, and as I looked up, a grayish hawk nabbed the cicada in midair with in its talons and flew off to join several other hawks floating like kites on strings over the tree tops along the creek. Later, the ranch foreman told me I'd probably just seen an old grasshopper hawk. That first encounter with a Mississippi kite left a lifelong impression on me and a lingering appreciation for this unique raptor.
After acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson planned explorations of the western tributaries of the Mississippi River. In addition to the Lewis and Clark expedition, Jefferson also launched the Red River, or Freeman and Custis expedition of 1806, which probed that river for over 600 miles. Somewhere near present day Shreveport, Louisiana, Peter Custis observed and recorded sighting of a new species of Falco he had not seen described, but he failed to give it a binomial name. In 1811, it was officially given the name Falco Mississippiensis by noted ornithologists Alexander Wilson who collected specimens along the Mississippi River near Natchez - thus the name Mississippi Kite.
During the nesting season, Mississippi kites (Ictinia mississippiensis) range throughout the southeastern United States from the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina and westward to Illinois and central Kansas. In Northcentral Texas, they arrive from their winter home in southern South America during late April and early May and return overland in late August or early September. On migration, large flocks of Mississippi kites can often be seen coming north or going south, leisurely floating along on air currents. They nest in the Texas Panhandle and northern counties of the state, including here in Cross Timbers Country. I see a few here in Mineral Wells each year.
Adult Mississippi kites measure 13-17 inches and are plain gray with dark wings and tail. Their head is much lighter, almost white. Juveniles are heavily streaked and spotted with barring on their tail feathers. Sexes have similar feather coloration so males and females look alike. Black eye-shadow masks surround their piercing red eyes. Their small black hooked beak is used effectively to dispatch and dismember prey. They weigh only 12-13 ounces and have 3 foot wingspans. Unlike some other species of kites, grasshopper hawks don't "kite" or hover motionless while hunting for their prey, rather use their falcon like wings and buoyancy to float and maneuver effortlessly on updrafts and air currents to pursue aerial prey.
My first encounter with Mississippi kites was nothing unique as they commonly follow livestock, wild animals, or even wildlife biologist walking around in the country looking for critters, anticipating that some kind of large flying insect might be kicked up. They also take advantage of other things that flush out insects, mice, lizards, small snakes and frogs like fire or moving farm machinery. Grasshoppers, cicadas, beetles, katydids, and dragonflies are their preferred prey which they typically catch in flight with their talons and eat in mid-air by passing them from feet to beak. They'll also snatch prey from tree limbs or drop to the ground for an occasional mouse meal. Mississippi kites are gregarious by nature and are often seen feeding or perched in groups.
My father-in-law who farmed up in the Panhandle near Paducah, Texas, called them "blue darters." Their feeding adaptation, however, is much different from that of Cooper's or sharp-shinned hawks that share the same moniker but prey heavily on small birds - Mississippi kites don't. Up in that area, shelterbelts planted during the 1930s to reduce wind and water erosion of soil are now favorite hangouts for Mississippi kites.
Mississippi kites usually build their bulky flat nests of twigs in the top of tall trees along creeks and drainages, but not always. In areas where tall trees are limited, nests may be built at lower levels and in a variety of smaller trees. Due to loss of nesting habitat throughout much of their range, tall trees found in urban areas are often used. Nests are lined with leaves and refreshed with green leaves periodically during the nesting period. Nests from previous years are often reused after a little sprucing up. Groups of Mississippi kites nesting in close proximity are not uncommon. I once climbed a chittum tree along the Tongue River on the Matador Wildlife Management Area up in Cottle County to see if a kite's nest had any eggs in it. Before I got half way to it, the kite that was circling overhead dove and nearly knocked me out of the tree. After several strafing raids, it became clear I was not welcome messing around where I didn't belong. Before being summarily evicted, I did see two whitish eggs in the nest.
Eggs take about 31-32 days to hatch and young are then fed for another 5 weeks or so. Non-breeding year-old birds get some "on-the-job-training" by helping adults construct and defend nests, incubate eggs and brood hatchlings. Scattered insect exoskeletons, wings and assorted body parts can often be found littering the ground below a kite's nest. They prefer to eat just the juicy parts. Like owls, they'll also regurgitate "pellets" of indigestible parts.
I've received a number of calls over the years from golfers that had close encounters of the first kind with an aggressive Mississippi kite that took up housekeeping along their favorite course. I'd sure like to see that Tiger Woods fellow keep his composure attempting a birdie putt on the 18th green for some championship while dodging a disgruntled Mississippi kite. Talk about a handicap! He's good, but not that good.
Until next time - I'll see you down the road and God Bless America!