Nature Note: Ode to Mississippi kite
or the interspecies crush that led me to SELVA—Colombia-based, rigorous scientific research organization focused on bird conservation in the neotropics
In 2016 I moved back to Savannah from Los Angeles. And one morning in Forsyth Park, I noticed these raptors flying and hunting together—darting, swooping, diving, barrel rolling—these birds seemed on fire with each other and their pursuits.
My well-worn National Geographic bird guide revealed them as Mississippi kites, a migratory hawk that breeds in parts of Texas, eastern Colorado and across the South during summer then flies to Bolivia, Paraguay and northern Argentina during winter.
Since they usually don’t venture west across the continental divide, it made since I’d never seen them living in California.
I started observing the kites regularly in Forsyth Park, and sometimes, as many as twelve would work the open fields on the south end picking off dragonflies and cicadas mid-flight or nabbing them from protruding tree branches.
They’d hone in on an insect, dive swiftly, snag it and keep flying. So fast, the insect had no idea what hit it. Their swiftness and precision made me think how exceptionally keen their eyesight must be to zero in on something so small and similarly agile from 500 feet or more away.
Oh, I was smitten.
I mean, really, these sleek-flying acrobatic hawks are an aerodynamic marvel. In flight their slate grey wings cleave as blades to the wind. Outstretched and arrow-straight, they also allow the bird to hover above its prey before folding and diving straight down to pluck an unaware cicada from the breeze.
That’s when its tail feathers direct the bird’s forward motion with deadly precision.
When you catch one perching, you really notice how its bright white head and body set off its black-ringed, searing red eyes and distinct hooked beak. Truly, Mississippi kites are handsome birds, debonair even.
Plus, they are athletic masters with some populations migrating upwards of 6,000 miles two times a year!
Yeah, I was crushing hard. On a bird. Just saying, if I were a bird, I’d totally want to be and hang out with Mississippi kites. All day. They are fire.
So, I got on the internet and went down a spiral to find as much scientific research about the species as possible.
I soon found that North American universities had contributed key insights about the species’s summer habitat and its use, including most notably Dr. Ben Skipper of San Angelo State University in Texas, but there was very little published research—and that remains the case today—about Mississippi kites in South America.
Except for one study I found from around 2010 from an organization named SELVA, which conducted point counts—identifying and counting bird species—as they migrated through the Darien of Panama.
The Darien Gap of Panama is that very narrow bit of land connecting Central America to South America at the juncture of Panama and Colombia. It’s also where a high percentage of all migratory birds pass through twice a year to and from their breeding and wintering grounds.
From that point count, I searched further to find SELVA’s homepage, and there, found a long list of published, well-regarded research on endemic and neotropic migratory bird species of Colombia and Central America.
Though I didn’t find much more published about Mississippi kites—my number one crush—I did find that SELVA had studied other species I love like yellow-billed cuckoo, summer tanager and cerulean warbler that also spend summers in parts of Georgia and South Carolina and winters in Colombia and South America.
As I read through their research, it planted a seed—that one day I would travel to South America and visit these birds to see what their lives are like in their winter habitats.
Because I would like to observe in person what Mississippi kites do in their “other life.” Are their behaviors similar? Do they fly and hunt together in the same ways they predate in their northern breeding grounds? Or are they more solitary during non-breeding? How exactly do they spend their time when they aren’t focused entirely on everything necessary for making and raising baby raptors? Do they chill by themselves, watch the sunset and drink mojitos?
Yeah, my bird crush is so serious it’s silly.
And I’m going to find out what Mississippi kites do when they aren’t breeding in North America! Stay tuned…