Roadside Raptors

This content is archived

Published on: Apr. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

residents in Missouri.

Kites and merlins

The Mississippi kite is a gray, falcon-shaped hawk with narrow, pointed wings. It's a marvelous flier and spends hours in the air, soaring and gliding. It rarely flaps its wings. Unlike other raptors that circle in the air, it moves in a more or less straight line as it flies.

Insects on the wing are the Mississippi kite's chief prey. Grasshoppers, dragonflies, beetles, crickets, cicadas and locusts make up much of its diet, but it occasionally eats lizards, frogs or snakes. When it sees prey, the bird fans its tail, hangs for a moment in midair, then drops downward and captures prey with its talons.

Mississippi kites spend the winter in South America, but they stay in Missouri from April through September. They nest mainly in southeastern Missouri along the Mississippi River. They often breed in small colonies of up to 20 pairs and will hunt together, too.

Merlins - jay-sized birds, sometimes called pigeon hawks - don't nest in Missouri, but they pass through the state in spring and fall. Some people call them "bullet hawks" or "blue streaks." These names fit them well because merlins are the speed demons of the air. With long, boldly-banded tails and long pointed wings, they dash and zoom, veer and zigzag as they catch insects in flight, especially dragonflies. They're small, but they often harass larger hawks and gulls.

They're also experts in catching birds, their major prey. They fly in a direct line over open forest where they hope to surprise flocks of birds. When they do, they may snatch a bird that is slow to escape.

Red-shouldered hawks

Red-shouldered hawks often fly among trees in wet woodlands or near streams. They range from 18 to 22 inches long and have a wingspan of about 40 inches. Females are generally larger than males. Heavy dark bands cross their fan tails on both sides. It's hard to see their rusty or rufous shoulders from below.

The best time to see red-shouldered hawks is in midmorning. In early spring, they spend much of the day soaring through the sky, noisily defending their territory. Their sharp, screeching kee-yah, kee-yah cries are distinctive.

These hawks often sit on the tops of dead trees where they have a good view of the forest floor. They eat birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. They capture prey by dropping on it from the air. Sometimes they forage along streams for crayfish. People often see them while canoeing Ozark rivers.

Some red-shouldered hawks remain in Missouri all winter, but migrants start arriving in early March and leave by about the middle of November. Normally solitary birds, they form strong pair bonds during the nesting season. They build their large nests of twigs, bark and leaves high up in the trees of wetland woods.

On your next road trip in the country, keep your eyes on the road, but watch for roadside raptors, too.

Content tagged with

Shortened URL