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Wild Thing: Acrobats of the Air

Buoyant, graceful Mississippi kites are long-distance travelers.

By Cliff Shackelford

In the “old” days, Texans would often pick up the phone to ask Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists about some strange critter they’d spotted. The biologists were hampered in their identification efforts by the limitations of the callers’ vocabulary or sometimes by their faulty memories.

Every summer we received quite a few calls about a medium-sized, dark-colored raptor that soars effortlessly. After a vague attempt to describe what he’d seen one hot August day, a caller wanted answers. “What in the world is it? We’ve never seen one before.”

Thankfully, many observers today send the same questions via email, accompanied by digital photos of the critter in question. These images certainly make it easier to accurately identify birds.

Mississippi kite

Mississippi kites are agile fliers, with long, pointed wings. They can be seen in northern parts of the state or during their migration to South America.

A quick glance at the photos attached to last autumn’s emails confirmed that the buoyant, graceful acrobat my correspondents observed is a Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis).

Funny thing about that name. Most kites in Texas never set foot (or wing) in the state of Mississippi. A name is just a name, and this one is based on where the species was first described by science.

Most of the kites we see migrating through Texas breed along the Red River, South Plains, Panhandle or points farther north into Oklahoma and Kansas.

Nesting pairs often dive-bomb humans who get too close to a tree that supports an active nest. Don’t fault these birds for being good parents and protecting their young from a perceived threat. We humans could learn a lot about parental care from our feathered neighbors.

Kites eat a wide variety of vertebrates and invertebrates, but a large part of their diet seems to favor insects they catch on the wing, like grasshoppers, beetles and cicadas. It is likely by design that the timing of their southbound migration (in sizable flocks during the heat of late summer and early fall across much of Texas) is done alongside tasty, migratory dragonflies known as rainpool gliders. These dragonflies are an easy protein source during the long journey and sure beat packing a sack lunch.

Kites spend their winters in South America. With an expected life span of 10 to 12 years, these busy birds live out of a suitcase for much of their lives. When people want to travel from Oklahoma to Peru, they get on an airplane. This bird, though, makes that trek all by itself, powered by muscle, instinct and a little help from favorable thermals and wind.

The next time you see one of these graceful gliders overhead in the sky, think about his migratory lifestyle. Try to imagine where he started his journey and where he’s headed. Remarkable!


Related stories

Hawk Watch in Corpus

Sport Meets Art In Falconry, Where Birds Are the Hunters

See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Wildlife page

 

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