The bird came first, just in case you were wondering. Sure, the official name, and associated behavioral verb, refer mostly to the Old World Kites, which look more harrier-ish than most of ours in the New World. The name has always seemed to apply to a rather motley group of birds, from the exquisite Scissor-tailed Kite of east Africa, to the grotesque Hook-billed Kite of Central America, and various and sundry examples in between. I’m not taxonomist enough to understand why this raptor grab bag was saddled with the name Kite, but they all seem defined by a behavior rather than any obvious morphological similarities. The ability to bend the wind to their will and hang in the air, like some sort of balsa wood and paper flying device whose name escapes me for the moment.
We in the south are stuffed silly with kites. Way down in the Florida they have the bizarre Snail Kite and the gorgeous Swallow-tailed Kite, both of which have made their way up as far north as North Carolina, though the former only once. But the default kite for this part of the country, as well as parts of the southern plains as well, is the Mississippi Kite, Ictinia mississippiensis, unparallelled aerial acrobat and merciless devourer of katydids.
Last week I was leading a field trip for the spring meeting of the Carolina Bird Club at Howell Woods, a patch of bottomland hardwood forest in Johnston County just southeast of Raleigh. It’s a spot where Mississippi Kites have nested before, but they’re never really expected, and I was busy managing expectations while encouraging sharp eyes. It’s just like a bird to prove me a liar, though, and when my group emerged from swampy trail, we found a single bird soaring over an expansive field not more than 50 feet from us. It was soon joined by another, and another, until three birds circled lazily, kitely, over our heads.
They seem bigger in the air, as kites both avian and amusement, tend to, and it wasn’t until a Common Grackle took offense to a passing bird that we were dealing with raptors barely larger than a mockingbird, though proportioned a bit differently of course. The Kite easily evaded the Grackle and continued its circuitous route, seemingly keeping an eye on the group watching below.
When suddenly one of them plummeted to the ground.
It made contact behind a row of pines, but when it came up it appeared to be feeding on something in mid-air. There were plenty of large grasshoppers throughout the field, no doubt one had met its demise to the fearsome predator, torn limb from limb from limb from limb from limb by the dainty bill. This is a bird that does not mess around.
It’s hard to walk away from a show like this – easily my best experience with Mississippi Kites since I’ve lived in North Carolina – but restrooms were calling and the responsibility of a field trip leader to his charges is not one to take lightly. As it was, the kites appeared sporadically for the next hour or so, working the field until the grasshoppers were stuck to the ground in fear and the birdwatchers were stuck to their bins in wonder.
Kites will do that.