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Missouri's Raptors

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2009

Last revision: Dec. 10, 2010

and Canada in spring.

Bald eagle nests, up to 7 feet across and 10 feet deep, are the largest in the bird world. Made of sticks and constructed in sycamores, cottonwoods and bald cypress trees, the nests are used year after year by the same birds. Bald eagles eat mostly fish, but also consume mussels, crayfish, waterfowl, rabbits, muskrats and turtles. In addition, they feed on carrion and may even forage in dumps.

Golden Eagle

Aquila chrysaetos
Length—37 inches
Wingspan—86 inches

Golden eagles do not live in Missouri year-round but winter here in small numbers. Adults are recognizable by their large size, immense wingspan, brown body and the golden sheen of the feathers on the crown and back of the head. Immature birds have brown and white underwings, with darker wing linings than immature bald eagles, and the base of their tail is bright white with a dark brown tip. Golden eagles have feathered legs.

Unlike bald eagles, which are usually found near water, golden eagles hunt in open grasslands for a wide variety of prey, including rabbits and other small mammals and birds. In flight, golden eagles resemble turkey vultures, soaring with their wings slightly raised.

Mississippi Kite

Ictinia mississippiensis
Length—15 inches
Wingspan—36 inches

The kites’ swallow-like gliding and diving flight enables these insect-eating raptors to hunt for prey on the wing, often in foraging flocks of more than 25 birds. Kites sometimes hunt for small birds and other small animals from exposed perches.

Mississippi kites are summer residents in Missouri. They feed and nest in bottomland forests, mainly along the Mississippi River and in scattered forested areas in western Missouri. Formerly seen only in southeastern Missouri, Mississippi kites have expanded their range and numbers and are now seen in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. The reduction of DDT and other chemicals in the natural environment may be a factor in the kites’ population growth.

Adults have a light gray body, whitish head and black tail. As seen from above, wings of adults are three shades of gray. Immature birds are heavily streaked underneath.

Northern Harrier

Circus cyaneus
Length—18–22 inches
Wingspan—40–47 inches

If you see a raptor soaring low over a prairie, marsh or hay field in winter, you are likely seeing a northern harrier, formerly known as a marsh hawk. Harriers rarely nest here, and with so little native prairie or open wetlands remaining in Missouri, they are rather uncommon in winter. Harriers almost skim the ground as

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