MS Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

Swallow-tailed Kites: Finding a Home Along Our Rivers

Friday, July 08, 2016
By Nick Winstead


Who does not like relaxing on a sandbar in a river during early summer and watching the water flow to the Gulf of Mexico? Our rivers and streams are popular fish­ing and boating destinations, and they are also home to an amazing variety of fish and wildlife. One such species, the Swallow-tailed Kite, is among the most beautiful and unique birds in North America, and we are fortunate they nest along the same rivers where we play! Seeing one of these birds gliding through the air is truly an unforgettable experience.

The Swallow-tailed Kite is a medium-sized raptor, with a four-foot wing span, striking black and white plumage, and a long forked tail. Anoth­er local name for this bird is the "fork-tailed chicken hawk," but do not worry, they do not eat chickens, small dogs, or really anything found on the ground. Their diet consists of insects like cica­das or very small vertebrates they are able to find in treetops (nestling birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, etc.). Their light weight (about one pound) and small feet mean they are not powerful enough to tackle larger prey. These birds are found along our major river systems in areas with patchworks of open fields and up­land and lowland forests. Since they are a migratory bird, you will only find them in Mississippi during spring and sum­mer.

Kites 2

Photo by Jennifer Coulson

After nesting, and before migration, Swallow-tailed Kites gather in commu­nal roosts along our rivers before head­ing south. Their migration takes them on a 10,000 mile round-trip journey to South America. This amazing journey often requires non-stop flights across the Gulf of Mexico and even arduous crossings over the Andes Mountains. As with some other wildlife species, habitat loss and conver­sion reduced their known U.S. range (i.e., where they are found) from roughly 21 states to small portions of only nine states today. We should make sure Missis­sippi continues to be a relative stronghold by taking good care of their remaining habitat.

For many decades, Swallow-tailed Kites have been found mostly along the lower Pearl and Pascagoula rivers. They are very social birds that like to nest and hunt for food around other Swallow-tailed Kites. Be­cause of this, they can be slow to move back into their former range even though habitat in some areas of the state is suitable again. So when we started getting calls about 10 years ago from people in central Mississippi who saw a beautiful fork-tailed raptor that they had never seen before, we had to investigate. After a few years of consistent, but still surprising reports from the same general areas, we figured they had to be settling into a new breeding area. This means more people would be able to see these incredible birds, but most importantly, suggests conditions for kites may be improving.

Conservation Efforts

MDWFP's Mississippi Museum of Natural Sci­ence has been monitoring our Swallow-tailed Kites for many years, but we needed better information on the birds in central Mississippi to help us in our con­servation efforts. In 2014, we started working with Dr. Jennifer Coulson, a scientist with the Orleans Audubon Society, to fly surveys along the Pearl and Strong rivers. These surveys found more birds than we predicted - we even found birds nesting in places where no known nests had ever occurred before. For example, we found a nest in Smith County which is the farthest north we have ever found them nesting in the state.

Kites

Dr. Jennifer Coulson with Strong River bird

Last year, Dr. Coulson was able to capture a male kite near the Strong River and attach a satellite trans­mitter to him. This single transmitter has allowed us to learn some fascinating information about their migration behavior and how Swallow-tailed Kites use central Mississippi. For example, after nesting, the Strong River bird headed southwest to a known kite gathering area along the Sabine River between Louisiana and Texas. From there, he continued south through Mexico and Central America to his winter­ing grounds in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. During his return journey northward, he departed the Yucat­an Peninsula and flew nonstop for 23 hours across the Gulf of Mexico and arrived safely at the coastal marshes on the east side of the Pascagoula River. You can read more about him and the other Swallow-tailed Kites tracked by the Orleans Audubon Society and Avian Research and Conservation Institute at http://www.swallow-tailedkites.org/.

How can we continue this positive trend for kites in Mississippi? Conser­vation through land protection and wise habitat management is the only way. In south Mississippi, Swallow-tailed Kites are found on Old River, Pasca­goula River, and Ward Bayou Wildlife Management Areas, so some blocks of intact habitat are relatively secure. On these public lands, it is important to continue monitoring of these popula­tions. In central Mississippi, like along the Strong River, kites are found almost entirely on private lands. As with other wildlife species (game or non-game), cooperating with private landowners is key to conserving these birds.

Since kites tend to use the same nesting area from year to year, and nesting areas of­ten have multiple nearby nests, it is im­portant to protect these areas and man­age disturbance, particularly during the breeding season which starts as early as March and continues through July after chicks fledge. When planning for for­est management and timber harvest, it is important to establish and maintain streamside management zones or buffer strips along streams and rivers. Not only is this good for kites, but it also provides good roosting areas for wild turkeys and habitat for other game.

How You Can Help

If you are a land­owner in an area with Swallow-tailed Kites, check for nesting activity before harvesting mature timber. If you find a nest, consider protecting the nest tree and a small buffer of trees around the nest. With the support of private land­owners, these birds can thrive and more Mississippians can continue to enjoy them into the future.

Swallow-tailed Kites make incredible journeys back from South America to Mississippi because our river systems and their surrounding habitats are just what they need to nest successfully and raise young. When you are boating, fishing, or just relaxing on our great riv­ers, look up! We need your help finding these stunning birds! Reports of sight­ings help us locate centers of activity that might yield new nests or important roosting sites.

If you see a Swallow-tailed Kite anywhere in the state, please note the date, precise location and num­ber of kites and call us at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science at (601) 576-6000. The future of these amazing birds depends on appreciation of our state's natural beauty and on our work­ing together to conserve our rivers and the surrounding forests for generations to come.

The migration path of the male Swallow-tailed Kite from Mississippi to Brazil

Migration



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