It is possible to see a couple of dozen or more different species of birds in your Monroe County backyard. The list of these backyard favorites includes the likes of ruby-throated hummingbirds, cardinals, mockingbirds, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, chipping sparrows, gray catbirds, bluebirds, and brown thrashers.
During the past several decades, the Mississippi kite has become an unexpected addition to the bird lists kept by a growing number of backyard wildlife enthusiasts.
This Mississippi kite is one of the most accomplished fliers of the bird world. When airborne, it uses its slender falcon-like wings and long squared off tail to perform loops, circles and glides so spectacular they would make a barnstorming stunt plane pilot proud.
The Georgians that are most likely to see Mississippi kites in their yards reside in the southern half of the State. This is because this kite nests primarily from just above the Fall Line southward across the Coastal Plain. Here they nest mainly along the edges of expansive bottomland forests that hug large rivers such as the Ocmulgee, Altamaha, Oconee, and Flint.
They also nest in forested tracts along large pastures and agricultural fields. However, over the past several decades they have begun nesting on golf courses, in parks, as well as in suburban neighborhoods and urban areas. Some of the cities known to host nesting Mississippi kites include Augusta, Macon, Dublin, Waycross and Savannah.
To my knowledge, the first time a Mississippi kite was documented in Monroe County was in 1994. A pair was reported by Dan Proctor. These birds nested in the Evergreen subdivision. Prior to that, the closest nesting attempts were reported from Macon. One nest was located near Riverside Drive.
Whenever a Mississippi kite nest is found, in the vast majority of cases, it is located in a tall hardwood tree. Some of these nests are built from 90 to 140 feet above the ground. As such, they are often difficult to find. It took Dan over a month to locate the nest constructed in his neighborhood. As it turned out the nest was in a tall oak some 70 feet above the ground.
When the birds choose to nest in a backyard, residents are able to watch male and female kites construct their flimsy nests out of sticks, moss, and leaves. They can also witness the male feed his mate during incubation. Once the young hatch, it is then possible to observe the kites bringing food to their hatchlings. Later when the youngsters are a little older folks find it fascinating to watch the parents simply drop food into the nest.
Mississippi kites are mainly insectivorous. Some of the critters eaten by the birds are cicadas, moths, beetles, katydids, grasshoppers and dragonflies. They will also consume frogs, lizards, snakes, small mammals, and birds. Most of these delicacies are captured on the wing using their feet. These raptors prefer to attack their prey from above and will swoop down and grab a dragonfly or other flying insect. The birds often use both feet to tear apart their prey and then devour it without missing a wing beat.
For weeks during the summer of 1994, Dan and his family enjoyed the rare spectacle of a nesting pair of Mississippi kites swooping down and seizing cicadas flying across their yard. On one occasion, they also saw a Mississippi kite bring a small snake to its nest.
A backyard birder that lives in St. Mary’s told me she was left speechless when she witnessed a Mississippi kite snatch a hummingbird in mid air as the bird flew away from one of her hummingbird feeders.
In times past, Mississippi kites fed on insects that took to the air after being flushed by bison grazing across the vast prairies of the American West. Nowadays they can often be spotted following livestock and mowing machines.
Recently my daughter had an unforgettable encounter with a Mississippi kite. This amazing event took place in one of the most unlikely locations imaginable. She lives in a large subdivision in Columbia County just west of Augusta. It seems as she was mowing her front yard with a self-propelled mower on a recent July morning she noticed that she was flushing grasshoppers and dragonflies.
Suddenly she realized the shadow of a large bird was repeatedly coursing across her lawn. Looking up she was surprised to see a Mississippi kite flying back and forth over her head. Although she often sees Mississippi kites gliding over her yard, this bird was flying only 15 feet or so above her head. She later told me the bird was so close she was able to peer into its red eyes as well as see that its yellow talon-tipped toes were spread ready to capture prey. As she continued to mow, the bird eventually swooped down, grabbed a flying insect, and flew off.
I suspect that in the little more than a decade and a half since the first Monroe County nest was found other Mississippi kites have nested close to other homes across the county. If a pair of Mississippi kites has nested near your residence, please let me know. If not, I hope a pair of Mississippi kites will one day nest in your neighborhood. If they do, I promise you it will elevate your backyard birding to a new plateau and leave you with unforgettable memories.
Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.