Kites of Texas
Diet: Varies - insects, rodents, birds and others
Average life span: 7-8 years
Habitat: Takes cover in forest and woodlands near open prairies or suburbs for hunting
My first sight of a Kite was on a rainy afternoon. I looked out my window to watch the light downpour and saw a big bird with color marking similar to a seagull land in the street. It took just two seconds more to realize this wasn’t a seagull. Gulls don’t have hooked beaks. Their eyes are not deep-set like black coals.
I jumped for my camera and headed outside. The bird had left the street and was, by then, sitting pretty up in a pine tree with his long black tail hanging down. The above picture was taken by my son who snuck around the cars to get the shot. He is much better than me at run and duck.
The Kite I saw that day was a Mississippi Kite, a small to medium-sized hawk. In flight, they can be identified by long, narrow, pointed wings, a black tail, dark gray body, pale head and pale feathers at the rear edge of the wings seen from behind.
I had several other views of this bird in my forested suburban neighborhood. It seemed to always show up in the worst weather making me wonder if it had a love for flying in the rain. For a time, it would hang out at the top of a pine snag (dead tree) where I could watch it from the kitchen. I had to laugh the day I saw a squirrel barking loudly at it until the kite was run off. These birds do eat rodents, but this one must have been full.
Mostly, they are insect hawks that snatch up dragonflies, moths, bees, and other large bugs to eat on the wing. On other occasions, they are known to eat frogs, toads, snakes, bats, small birds, and even turtles. They are smallish for raptors at only 14” long.
White-tail and Swallow-tail Kites
White-tail and Swallow-tail Kites
This family group also includes a White-tailed version that is a little larger than the Mississippi kite at 16” in length. It used to be lumped together with kites of Europe and Africa, collectively called Black-shouldered Kites. In 1992, the U.S. bird won recognition as a separate species and is now called a White-tailed Kite. These birds are not observed bothering other birds much. They mainly choose rodents with insects as secondary forage.
A third subspecies is the Swallow-tailed Kite. This is a gorgeous bird that flies effortlessly. I have seen this one only once chasing dragonflies over a large open parking lot. It hovered in the wind like a Harrier aircraft hunting with little more than flicks of its long forked tail to alter direction. The below video by Phooj Vaj demonstrates the bird's flight prowess. The back and wing feathers are darker than the Mississippi and White-tailed Kites. It is the largest of the three Kites found in Texas at 23” long with a 48” wingspan.
Swallow-tail Kite Eating on the Go
Range and Migration
All three Kites are found ranging as far south as winter hunting grounds in Paraguay and Argentina. The Mississippi and Swallow-tailed Kites are designated as migratory and can be found in the spring and summer in our state. The Mississippi Kite has the widest northward range, recently reaching New England states and occasionally seen in Canada, while the Swallow-tail keeps to the subtropic areas of the south. White-tailed Kites, however, aren't designated as migratory yet. There is some confusion as to whether it is migratory, nomadic or both. In Texas, the White-tailed Kite is a year-round resident.
Kites differ in their choices of nesting sites and egg production. The Mississippi Kite prefers trees and lines its nest with green leaves. Nest heights vary depending on the forest makeup. This bird has only 2 eggs at a time which are bluish white. They nest in loose colony groups.
The White-tail has 3-4 brown blotched eggs, but prefers to nest in shrubs or lower in trees and line their stick nests with grasses. The picture below shows two chicks in such a nest.
The Swallow-tail prefers tall pines and cypress trees building their nests out of sticks lined with lichen and moss. They will produce 3-4 brown blotched white eggs. Mated pairs have been seen associating with non-breeders who sometimes assist in feeding the chicks. Swallow-tails are said to set up colonies near Anhinga rookeries. I haven’t seen this yet, but will be checking this spring when I visit the Trinity River Waterbird Rookery on I10. This is on my way to Anahuac National Wildlife Reserve.
The juveniles fledge at around 30 days old. Chicks start out brown-streaked until reaching adulthood and are guarded by their parents rigorously. Nesting kites have been known to swoop down and attack other birds, animals and even people who get too close to a nesting site. Suggestions by birding organizations include keeping at least a 50 foot distance from nest sites.
White-tail Kite Chicks
Population Growth in Kites
Swallow-tail and White-tail Kites disappeared from Texas for 75 to 80 years. They returned starting in 1989 and now have stable populations. The Peregrine Fund, a conservation organization for the preservation of birds of prey believe that shooting and egg collecting in the 1940s may have caused these disappearances, but the range of this species has expanded dramatically in North America and Central America within the last 50-60 years. This is probably because there is more open space, particularly in tropical areas as forests are replaced by cropland. There is also less persecution by people and perhaps an increase in prey.
© 2015 Sherry Thornburg