Mississippi Kite

Mississippi kite in flight, seen from below
Species of Conservation Concern
Scientific Name
Ictinia mississippiensis
Accipitridae (hawks and eagles) in the order Accipitriformes

The Mississippi kite is a rare summer resident in Missouri, usually seen flying above forests and grasslands along the Mississippi River valley. The flight of this rather small raptor is buoyant, like that of a swallow, or, yes, a kite.

Adult Mississippi kites have a gray body, whitish head, and black tail. The profile in flight, seen from below, is similar to that of a falcon, with a slender body, long tail, and long, pointed wings; but kites are very buoyant and have slow wingbeats, similar to a northern harrier or short-eared owl. In flight, seen from above, the wings have three shades of gray: very light secondaries (trailing-edge wing feathers on the inside half of the wing), dark primaries (trailing-edge wing feathers on the outer half of the wing), and medium gray on the rest of the wing.

Immature individuals have heavily streaked underparts and a banded tail.

The call is similar to that of a broad-winged hawk but descends at the end of the phrase. It has been likened to the sound of a dog squeak toy. There are two notes of the whistle: the first sharp, the second long and descending: “CHIK-ewwww!”

Similar species:

  • The male northern harrier is much larger and has a conspicuous white rump patch; also, it typically flies with the wings in a shallow V shape (dihedral).
  • The swallow-tailed kite, seen in flight from below, is white with strongly contrasting trailing edge of wings and black tail whose outer feathers are elongated.

Length: 15 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail); wingspan 36 inches. Larger than a pigeon.

Where To Find

Potentially statewide. In Missouri, most frequently reported along the Mississippi River valley.

In Missouri, Mississippi kites are usually seen flying above mature bottomland forests or grasslands in the Mississippi River valley and at a few woodland sites along the western edge of the state.

The flight of Mississippi kites is buoyant like that of a swallow. A hundred individuals or more have been seen circling and catching insects over the Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri.

Mississippi kites forage for insects above the forest canopy or in grasslands for small animals. They sometimes forage communally for insects flying over trees or rivers, circling and darting after flying prey, catching it in midair with one or both of their feet. They also hunt for insects on the ground and in trees. Cicadas, beetles, grasshoppers, and other medium or large insects are on the menu. They sometimes snatch pasture insects that are stirred by the movements of cattle, horses, or the like.

Uncommon summer resident, locally. A Missouri species of conservation concern.

Life Cycle

Present in Missouri from late April to late September; populations are highest from late May through the end of August. Mississippi kites breed in summer in parts of the central and southern United States, then migrate south through eastern Mexico, Central America, and across northwestern South America to their winter territory centered in western Paraguay and parts of Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia.

In our region, Mississippi kites usually nest in trees in mature bottomland forests, often in colonies. Both parents construct the nest, using twigs, and line it with leaves and other softer materials. There is only one clutch a year. A clutch usually consists of 2 eggs, which are incubated for about 30 days. Young remain in the nest for about another 30 days.

Graceful, acrobatic fliers with slender, smooth, dapper gray bodies, Mississippi kites are a treat to watch, when you’re lucky enough to see them. Groups like the Missouri Birding Society not only act to preserve and protect birds, but also alert their members when rare or unusual birds are spotted in Missouri.

Nesting Mississippi kites can tolerate some extent of human development and sometimes nest colonially in cities and suburbs, especially in regions west of Missouri, in the southern Great Plains. But they can be intolerant of people who get too close to their nests, and the kites may dive toward interlopers. This behavior is alarming but is usually not dangerous, as the birds rarely actually hit people. A solution is to provide plenty of appropriate natural nesting habitat for them: generally, this means large tracts of bottomland forest.

As with all migratory birds, the destiny of Mississippi kites is tied to the existence of appropriate habitats everywhere they go. In addition to the various habitats and regions they use in the United States, and the places they fly through as they migrate, they spend winters mostly in two regions of South America: the Gran Chaco and the nearby Pantanal. Where is this, exactly? It’s a landlocked area that includes parts of northern Argentina, almost all of western Paraguay, eastern Bolivia, and parts of southwestern Brazil.

So what is the Mississippi kite’s winter territory like?

  • The Gran Chaco, or the Chaco Plain, is a hot, rather arid, lowland area in the Rio de la Plata basin. In terms of square miles, it is about the size of Texas. It includes dry forests, river-associated forests, wetlands, savannas, and other habitats. This remote region is currently undergoing rapid deforestation for timber and to clear the land for cattle farming. Large US firms are some of the region’s principal agribusiness investors. Thus conservation is an issue in the region, which has a rich diversity of plants and animals, including creatures like tapirs, the blue-crowned parakeet, anteaters, and the pink fairy armadillo. More than 3,500 plants and around 800 land vertebrates (herps, mammals, and birds) live in the region.
  • The adjoining Pantanal region is in southwest Brazil and parts of Bolivia and Paraguay. It covers about the same amount of square miles as Missouri, and it is the world’s largest tropical wetlands and seasonally flooded grasslands. It’s well-known as a sanctuary for migratory birds, including the Mississippi kite (in Spanish, the bird is called milano boreal; in Portuguese, sovi-do-norte). Like the Gran Chaco, the Pantanal is threatened by deforestation, though some of it is protected as national parkland.
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About Birds in Missouri

About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.