Be on the Lookout for Mississippi Kites

Common sense tells us that Brood X Periodical Cicada emergence begins in the southern part of the population zone, where the ground temperatures reach 64° first, then progresses to the north as the weather warms.  In the forested hills where the lower Piedmont falls away onto the flat landscape of the Atlantic Coastal Plain in Maryland’s Cecil and Harford Counties, the hum of seventeen-year-old insects saturates a listener’s ears from all directions—the climax nears.

Periodical Cicadas, mostly Magicicada  septendecim, are well into their breeding cycle along the Piedmont-Atlantic Coastal Plain border right now.  Love is in the air.

With all that food flying around, you just knew something unusual was going to show up to eat it.  It’s a buffet.  It’s a smorgasbord.  It’s free, it’s all-you-can-eat, and it seems, at least for the moment, like it’s going to last forever.  You know it’ll draw a crowd.

The Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis), a trim long-winged bird of prey, is a Neotropical migrant, an insect-eating friend of the farmer, and, as the name “kite” suggests, a buoyant flier.  It experiences no winter—breeding in the southern United States from April to July, then heading to South America for the remainder of the year.  Its diet consists mostly of large flying insects including beetles, leafhoppers, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and, you guessed it, cicadas.  Mississippi Kites frequently hunt in groups—usually catching and devouring their food while on the wing.  Pairs nest in woodlands, swamps, and in urban areas with ample prey.  They are well known for harmlessly swooping at people who happen to get too close to their nest.

Mississippi Kites nest regularly as far north as southernmost Virginia.  For at least three decades now, non-breeding second-year birds known as immatures have been noted as wanderers in the Mid-Atlantic States, particularly in late May and early June.  They are seen annually at Cape May, New Jersey.  They are rare, but usually seen at least once every year, along the Piedmont-Atlantic Coastal Plain border in northern Delaware, northeastern Maryland, and/or southeastern Pennsylvania.  Then came the Brood X Periodical Cicadas of 2021.

During the last week of May and these first days of June, there have been dozens of sightings of cicada-eating Mississippi Kites in locations along the lower Piedmont slope in Harford and Cecil Counties in Maryland, at “Bucktoe Creek Preserve” in southern Chester County, Pennsylvania, and in and near Newark in New Castle County, Delaware.  They are being seen daily right on the lower Susquehanna watershed’s doorstep.

Today, we journeyed just south of Mason’s and Dixon’s Delaware-Maryland-Pennsylvania triangle to White Clay Creek State Park along Route 896 north of Newark, Delaware.  Once there, we took a short bicycle ride into a wooded neighborhood across the street in Maryland to search for the Mississippi Kites that have been reported there in recent days.

Periodical Cicadas filled the treetops and the airspace just above them.
It wasn’t long before Mississippi Kites appeared over the trees along a hilltop clearing to snatch up cicadas for a morning meal.
This kite glides on autopilot as it holds a captured cicada in its talons and tears it apart with its hook-shaped bill.
At least ten Mississippi Kites have been seen simultaneously at this site or in nearby Newark during recent days. This morning, we saw six.
All the Mississippi Kites we saw today were second-year birds.  The banded tail is characteristic of both hatch-year (juvenile) and second-year (immature) Mississippi Kites.  Of course, at this time of year, hatch-year birds are still in the nest and not flying around pigging out on Periodical Cicadas.
The banded tail, gray underside, and white head of a second-year Mississippi Kite.  Though known as immature or subadult birds during their second year, there are records of Mississippi Kites successfully breeding at this age.  Recent wanderings into the Mid-Atlantic States and New England have led to a spotty expansion of the nesting range there.
Mississippi Kites in their second year undergo molt of their flight feathers. The timing can vary greatly among individual birds with diet among the factors affecting the process.  This bird is just beginning the replacement of its juvenile remiges and rectrices.
Tail molt beginning on this second-year Mississippi Kite.  These banded juvenile tail feathers will be replaced by a set of all-dark adult rectrices.
A second-year Mississippi Kite with an all-dark adult tail feather (rectrix).  An abundance of protein-rich cicadas should provide ample nutrition to keep the molt process going for this maturing bird, at least for another couple of weeks.  Relocating inland on the Piedmont could keep this and other kites well-nourished for even longer.

Will groups of Mississippi Kites develop a taste for our seventeen-year cicadas and move north into the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed?  Ah, to be young and a nomad—that’s the life.  Wandering on a whim with one goal in mind—food.  It could very well be that now’s the time to be on the lookout for Mississippi Kites, especially where Brood X Periodical Cicadas are abundant.