Suburban Mississippi kites

Last year I was thrilled to discover a pair of Mississippi kites conducting courtship in the neighbor’s tree right across the street. The tree was literally 50 yards from my front door. I’m a raptor freak. Most of my early background in the wildlife field was spent studying or counting raptors. I’m always trying to learn a little more about them and having a pair of Mississippi kites 50 yards from my front door was very convenient. I pretty much photo-documented the entire nesting cycle of that pair to the point when the pair and two fledglings migrated south for the winter.

Here’s a photo of the pair copulating last year, 8 May 2016.DSCN9736

When they built our neighborhood in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the developers decided to keep the mature trees intact and build around them. Of course, that practice is rare in the modern age. Developers have discovered its much easier and cheaper to clear the land and then plant some trees, trees with little to no wildlife value. In addition, I’ve learned that Red-cockaded woodpeckers used to inhabit this area and that the local park, Hitchcock Woods, which is a half mile from our home had a decent little population of the woodpeckers. So there is some wildlife value and suitability going on in our suburban environment here.

Populations of Mississippi kites have been increasing and are among the most well-known raptors in the Southeast that have adapted to urban and suburban environments. They are known to actually attack golfers in the Southeast when they get too close to their nests. The pairs in our neighborhood are unlike the overly-protective pairs I’ve read about. Our Mississippi kites are friendly and really don’t mind people.

Here’s a shot of one of the pair from last year taking a leaf off our oak tree and taking to their nest, in a loblolly pine, across the street. 6 May 2016.DSC_5674

My neighbor, Anita, across the street was a widow. She was very tolerant of me last year sneaking around spying and snapping shots of the nesting kites. She was planning on cutting a couple massive loblolly pines in July which was still nestling stage for these Mississippi kites. The trees were right next to the nest tree. In fact, the pair had used one of them to prepare food for the nestlings. She was tired of the pine sap and pine cones smacking and scarring her car, the trees hung over her driveway. Anyway, I convinced her to delay having the trees cut. I explained to her that maybe that kind of disturbance wouldn’t be good that early in the nestling stage. Delaying things would ensure their survival. Well, she did and she made a point to come over and tell me. I was surprised but thanked her profusely. She said, “What’s another month anyway.”  Anita passed away in February. She was diagnosed with the late stages of cancer and died rather suddenly. She died in her home with her family at her side. I never got to say goodbye to her nor give her a print of her bird which I had promised.

Here’s Anita’s obituary. She was a teacher. Her and her husband were the original owners of the house across the street and they were apparently the second couple to start living in our neighborhood. She was a sweet woman, very friendly and always waved to me.

Anita

Well, the pair of Mississippi kites returned this early spring. Although I hadn’t marked the birds, the fact that they were perched in Anita’s same loblolly pine tree and conducting courtship there, I felt fairly confident that at least one of the pair was the same bird from last year. Where do they migrate to? I don’t know. But they are known to winter as far south as Peru. It was interesting to see them return to the exact spot from last year. However, I’ve observed this with nesting Northern harriers in west-central Kentucky. I had a harrier nest literally 5 meters from the previous year’s nest and harriers nest on the ground in grasslands. That’s even more impressive since grasslands are so much more contiguous and similar in structure compared to a tree at least to our human eyes.

Here’s a photo of the pair of Mississippi kites copulating this May. No shame. 11 May 2017.DSC_0780

I think one of the more interesting facts I learned about our Mississippi kites this year was that they are wannabe House wrens. Male House wrens are known to build “dummy” nests in their territories and not use them. I’m not sure if the term “dummy nest” is exactly right for Mississippi kites. However, this pair built and tended a nest, which was an American crow’s nest last year, in a loblolly tree across my street in my other’s neighbor’s front yard and at the same time apparently built a nest further down our block. They acted as if they were going to nest across the street. I videoed them prepping and inspecting the nest. But then they would vanish for days. Where did they go? I began to wonder if they left the area entirely. I didn’t hear them, and I have a good ear for bird calls. I didn’t see them either. I started to ride my bike around the block. Then one day in late May I discovered their second nest down the block from us, about 150 yards from our property, ~ 4 properties over. But then they were back in the loblolly tree across the street?! I finally decided to conduct some literature research. I quickly discovered that Mississippi kites are known to build multiple nests in a season and that they eventually choose one. In addition, they take their time doing it, around 2 weeks or more, so a delayed courtship and nest-building stage. This is different than most birds I have studied or read about.

 

So they ended up in the backyard of Susan’s yard which is about 4 properties down from us. They chose a live oak tree to nest in and their nest was only about 30 feet up in the tree. When I first observed Susan’s nest, I thought of the stories of dive-bombing kites on golf courses. This nest was low. I hope they don’t dive-bomb Susan. I started to monitor the nest but knew it was only a matter of time before the neighbor (Susan), who I didn’t know at the time, would see me and wonder who the hell I was. It didn’t take long. I use a spotting scope mounted on a tripod. So when I walk around the block, people notice me. When I first saw Susan, she was at her front door, I was on the public street viewing the nest, which was visible from the street in her front yard. The nest was in sight just above her roof, a one-story home which is standard in our neighborhood. Well, my initial contact with her was awkward. I said hi and mentioned I was watching a bird and that she could come over to view it in my scope. She said, “No! Are you doing something nefarious?” Nefarious? I guess she thought I was a Peeping Tom? I didn’t realize Peeping Toms walk around in the broad daylight viewing people inside their homes with Kowa spotting scopes from the street in plain sight. Yes, lady, I’m watching you undress from the street in broad daylight. I guess I understand this paranoia because my wife always shuts the blinds on the windows when it’s showering time. I always joke with her about it too. Yes, look at all those people lined up in the street to see you naked. They’re ready for the show, honey! Anyway, I approached Susan from the street and introduced myself. I told her I would leave my resume and business card in her mailbox. I even printed off and left her my recent publication on wintering Golden eagles. I told her I was interested in birds of prey and that I was just watching the kites for fun mostly. They weren’t endangered or anything. I appealed to any anti-government sentiment or suspicion that she might have had. She was completely cool about it after I left my credentials and told me that I could even go into her backyard and watch them there if I wanted.DSCN9972-002

So I made some connections and got a few other neighbors involved in my neighborhood kite monitoring project. I didn’t monitor them as much as I did last year. It was much more convenient last year for one, they were in plain view from my front porch. Also, this summer was busy for us and we did some traveling. When I did go watch them, I tried to stay a while to possibly photograph what they were bringing and feeding their nestlings. I prefer the nestling or fledgling period obviously. There’s much more gore and surprise when delivered prey is involved. For example, I documented one of the pair feeding a fledgling a bird last year. I’m not sure what species of bird it was or whether it was nestling or adult bird. Swallow-tailed kites are known to snatch entire passerine nests with contents (the nestlings) and then dump them into their nests for their nestlings to eat. In fact, in one study, the researcher documented what species nests the Swallow-tailed kites were taking. The researcher simply walked under the tree where the Swallow-tailed kite’s nest was located and picked up the emptied passerine nests that had fallen to the ground and identified them to species.  So Swallow-tailed kites take not just one of your young, they take everybody including the house!

Here’s a photograph of a fledgling Mississippi kite eating a bird. 6 August 2016.DSCN9910

After this summer I have concluded that cicadas are their primary preferred prey here. This isn’t new information, it’s well known throughout their range but there are specific areas within their range where there are food differences. But last year they fed their nestlings and fledglings cicadas and it appears that this year was very similar. The only difference was that last year they raised two nestlings and this year only one nestling made it. I don’t climb trees and get accurate egg and nestling counts. I think they had two nestlings this summer and one of them apparently died. I imagine the food supply was different this year compared to last year as well. It’s well-known that changes in food supply can affect productivity and survival of young. In addition, cicadas are known to have specific years of large synchronized emergences. I thought this year was going to be one of the emergence years for the cicadas but I don’t know, it doesn’t appear that it was. I have seen a periodical cicada emergence in Kentucky years ago. All the birds get in on the action.

I’m going to end my post with this video compilation of this year’s nesting cycle footage. I videoed that first confusing nesting situation when the pair acted as if they were going to nest across the street but ended up further down our block. There’s some courtship, nestling, and fledgling stage footage as well. You can hear lawnmowers or vehicular traffic in almost every clip. Gives you an idea of the suburban environment here and how these birds have adapted to us. I’m glad that I got some of my neighbors a little more aware of these birds this year. Enjoy.

 

Bolen, E.G., and D. Flores. 1993. The Mississippi Kite. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.

Coulson, J.O. 2001. Swallow-tailed kites carry passerine nests containing nestlings to their own nests. Wilson Bulletin 113: 340-342.

 

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