Ictinia mississippiensisMississippi kite

Geographic Range

Mississippi kites breed in Arizona and the southern Great Plains, east to the Carolinas and south to the Gulf Coast. They are found in the largest numbers in the central states of Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Over the past ten years, the range of Mississippi kites has increased, and the species has been seen wandering as far north as New England in the spring and to the tropics in the winter. Mississippi kites migrate to the tropics or subtropical areas in South America, southern Florida or southern Texas for the winter. (Audubon Adopt-a-Bird, 2000; Austing, 1997; Fantina, 2001; ; Robbins, et al., 1966; Texas Parks & Wildlife, 1996)


In the central plains and southwest part of their breeding habitat, Mississippi kites live in mature bottomland forests with mixed hardwood trees. They prefer large tracts of forest near to open habitat such as pastures or agricultural fields. In the south-central Great Plains, Mississippi kites prefer woodlands and oak savannas mixed with prairie. (Audubon Adopt-a-Bird, 2000; Austing, 1997; Fantina, 2001; ; Parker, 1999; Robbins, et al., 1966; Texas Parks & Wildlife, 1996)

Physical Description

Mississippi kites are small falcon-shaped birds of prey. Females are larger than males, ranging from 34.5 to 37 cm in total length and 270 to 388 g. Males range from 34 to 36 cm in length and weigh 214 to 304 g. The wingspan of adult Mississippi kites ranges from 75 to 83 cm (average 79 cm). They are grey and black in color, with a light grey head and underparts, and dark grey to black backs and upperwing coverts. In addition to being larger, females tend to have a darker head and shoulders than males. Mississippi kites have red eyes with a black area around the eyes and yellow to red legs. Their wings are narrow and pointed, and wing tips and tail are black. This coloration helps distinguish these kites from other raptors in flight.

Immature Mississippi kites look very different from adults. They have white or buff heads, necks and undersides heavily streaked with brown and black. Their upper body and wings are dull black with some light colored edging on the feathers. The tails of juvenile Mississippi kites have three thin white stripes on the underside. They retain this juvenile plumage until their second fall.

Adult Mississippi kites are occasionally mistaken for northern harriers, but they do not have the white rump or broad and pale body of northern harriers. Immature birds are sometimes confused with the young of broad-winged hawks and peregrine falcons. (Audubon Adopt-a-Bird, 2000; Austing, 1997; ; Parker, 1999; Robbins, et al., 1966; Texas Parks & Wildlife, 1996)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Range mass
    214 to 388 g
    7.54 to 13.67 oz
  • Range length
    34 to 37 cm
    13.39 to 14.57 in
  • Range wingspan
    75 to 83 cm
    29.53 to 32.68 in


Mississippi kites are monogamous. They form pairs before arriving at the breeding grounds or soon after arriving. Courtship displays are rare. However, individuals have been observed guarding their mate from competitors. (; Parker, 1999)

Mississippi kites breed once per year between May and July. Most individuals begin breeding at age 2. Males and females form pairs before arriving at their breeding site around mid-May. Five to seven days after arriving, they begin to build a nest or refurbish an old nest. They prefer to have a high nest in the fork of a tree, 3 to 30 meters from the ground. When building their nest they sometimes choose a location surrounded with wasps and bees, which ward off botflies that attack their young. The flat, bulky nest is constructed of small twigs and sticks with a lining of Spanish moss.

The female lays 1 to 3 eggs (usually 2), and begins incubating as soon as the first egg is laid. Both parents incubate the eggs for 29 to 32 (usually 30) days. The newly hatched chicks are altricial, and are brooded nearly constantly by the parents for the first 4 days. Both parents bring food to the chicks for at least six weeks. The chicks begin to leave the nest at about 25 days old, and begin flying at 30 to 35 days old. Most juveniles become independent of their parents within 10 days of fledging. (Audubon Adopt-a-Bird, 2000; Austing, 1997; Illinois Natural History Survey, 1998; ; Parker, 1999; Robbins, et al., 1966; Texas Parks & Wildlife, 1996)

  • Breeding interval
    Mississippi kites breed once per year
  • Breeding season
    Mississippi kites breed between May and July.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 3
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    29 to 32 days
  • Average time to hatching
    30 days
  • Range fledging age
    25 to 30 days
  • Range time to independence
    35 to 40 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 to 2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 years

Both parents incubate the eggs, and brood the chicks for the first few days after hatching. Both parents bring food to the chicks for at least six weeks. For the first week or so, parents regurgitate insects for the young chicks. After this initial period, the parents offer insect parts and parts of vertebrates to the chicks for a period of about 4 days, after which whole prey items are brought to the nest for the chicks. (Audubon Adopt-a-Bird, 2000; Austing, 1997; Illinois Natural History Survey, 1998; ; Parker, 1999; Robbins, et al., 1966; Texas Parks & Wildlife, 1996)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female


The oldest known wild Mississippi kite lived 11 years. (; Parker, 1999)


Mississippi kites are social birds. They roost, forage and migrate in groups, and often nest in loose colonies.

Mississippi kites are most often seen on the wing. Their flight is smooth but is not described as soaring. Rather, it veers and often changes elevations. Kites do not display the circling behavior of some raptors, but rather fly more often in a straight line. Kites can eat on the wing using one or both feet to pick their prey to pieces. Seldom do kites perch to eat.

All Mississippi kites are migratory. They gain weight in August before beginning migration, and leave the breeding grounds in September. (Illinois Natural History Survey, 1998; ; Parker, 1999; Robbins, et al., 1966)

Home Range

One study estimated the home ranges of breeding Mississippi kites to be 3 to 20 square kilometers in size, with an average size of 12 square kilometers. (; Parker, 1999)

Communication and Perception

Mississippi kites communicate using two different whistle-like calls. One call has been described as a two syllable “phee phew” with the first note short and rising and the second longer and downwards. The other call has been described as "phee-ti-ti." (Parker, 1999)

Food Habits

Mississippi kites are primarily insectivores. Their favorite foods are insects in the orders Orthoptera (grasshoppers) and Odonata (dragonflies). This species also eats small snakes, frogs, lizards, small birds, bats, and fish. Kites usually hunt within 400 meters of their nests, and can eat while flying. Mississippi kites sometimes follow large mammals and feed on insects that they flush. (Audubon Adopt-a-Bird, 2000; Austing, 1997; Fantina, 2001; Illinois Natural History Survey, 1998; ; Robbins, et al., 1966)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • fish
  • insects


Mississippi kite eggs, chicks and adults are vulnerable to predation by raccoons and fox squirrels. Other known predators of eggs and chicks include great horned owls, hawks (family Accipitridae), ants, blue jays, American crows, common grackles, snakes (suborder Serpentes) and greater roadrunners. (Austing, 1997; ; Parker, 1999)

Ecosystem Roles

Mississippi kites impact the populations of the prey they eat, particularly grasshoppers and dragonflies.

Some Mississippi kites show a commensal relationship several other species. For example, Mississippi kite nests are often found with wasp nests near or on the kite nests. The wasps probably provide protection to kites against climbing predators. Several smaller bird species, including house sparrows, northern mockingbirds and blue jays often build nests on or near Mississippi kite nests. (; Parker, 1999)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Mississippi kites help to control populations of insects that are agricultural pests. (Illinois Natural History Survey, 1998)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Adult Mississippi kites become very aggressive when their nests contain young. They may defend their nest from perceived threats, including humans, by diving at them. As a result, they are seen as unwelcome guests in many places. (Illinois Natural History Survey, 1998)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans

Conservation Status

Mississippi kites are not federally threatened or endangered. In fact, their overall numbers are stable or increasing. However, they are still threatened in some states by habitat destruction or disturbance.

Mississippi kites are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and CITES Appendix II. (Parker, 1999)


Alaine Camfield (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Jamie Stepp (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


Audubon Adopt-a-Bird, 2000. "Audubon Adopt-a-Bird - Mississippi Kite Ictinia mississippiensis" (On-line). Accessed 01/09/04 at http://www.adoptabird.org/mk.html.

Austing, R. 1997. "Ron Austing -- Wildlife Photography" (On-line). Accessed 01/09/04 at http://www.seidata.com/~rausting/birds/birdsofprey/mkite.html.

Fantina, D. 2001. "Mississippi Kite" (On-line). Accessed 01/09/04 at http://tbba.cbi.tamucc.edu/accounts/miki/mikiacc.htm.

Illinois Natural History Survey, 1998. "IFWIS - Mississippi Kite Ictinia mississippiensis" (On-line). Accessed 01/09/04 at http://www.inhs.uiuc.edu/chf/pub/ifwis/birds/mississippi-kite.html.

Parker, J. 1999. Mississippi kite (Ictinia mississippiensis). Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 402. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc.

Robbins, C., B. Brunn, H. Zim. 1966. Birds of North America. New York: Western Publishing Company, Inc.

Texas Parks & Wildlife, 1996. "Mississippi Kite" (On-line). Accessed 01/09/04 at http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/wild/birds/kites.htm.