Matt’s Ten Birds Part 1

Kudos to Darren and Steve for sparking this neat thread. I’ll add my own ten in turn, putting a Louisiana spin on the list and ratcheting it down even further with birds commonly seen on my way to work. Common they may be, but these Louisiana natives meet the Ten Bird theme being both beautiful and interesting, at least to me.

Some of the text here will come from parts of In Season, Waypoints blog posts and various old articles, which is at once shamelessly self-promoting, lazy and quite proper, since I first wrote about these birds because I love them all.

First up, two kites and two blackbirds…

The Mississippi Kite [Ictina mississippiensis]

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Several pair of Mississippi Kites nest along the boulevard a block behind our house. The neighborhood’s mature trees (oaks, pines and pecans) end there, making of our section an artificial clearing perfect for the aerial foraging of these buoyant birds. Kites are easily our most conspicuous raptors during summertime—from dawn to dusk you’ll see at least two overhead, usually more—but they completely vanish by mid-September, moving almost at once to Central and South America.

From In Season, the August 28/03 entry: “The next signal of changing season is the vanishing of Mississippi kites from above the parade ground. Only one remained this morning, a sort of blue-gray ghost falcon skimming the wet grass to power up beneath an early dragonfly. They are quietly spectacular, these kites—proof that what makes our more familiar falcons and hawks special is not the size of their prey but the style of its pursuit. In this, the Mississippi kite has no betters.”

The kites are largely insectivorous and first on their menu are dragonflies. But to watch the birds stoop vertically from hundreds of feet above our roof, making perfect peregrines of themselves, is to see an insect swatted in high style. They’ve been known to turn this terrible stoop toward chimney swifts, too; and just this morning I saw a kite being mobbed by an angry swift, and I wondered.

Kites will hunt in the canopy, particular early in the morning, catching cicadas when available but also small vertebrates like anoles and baby birds. One special afternoon, while entertaining falconer friends in the backyard and watching kites, we took in a rare spectacle: an adult burst through the canopy a couple dozen feet above us carrying a fledgling Blue Jay, clearly visible. Behind her in pursuit flew two of her young; all three passed over at top speed. How’s that for entertainment?

Swallow-tailed Kite [Elanoides forficatus]

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The Swallow-tailed Kite is a magical bird, plain and simple. It must have been unknown to the people who first named paper kites after the real thing, but this one puts any child’s toy to shame. They are larger in span than a Mississippi, but about the same in weight. Most of the extra surface area comes from that wonderful train, split, well, like a swallows’ tail but so much more dramatic. A Swallow-tailed’s diet is similar to its cousin’s but with the curious addition of paper wasps’ nests, from which the larvae are gently plucked. Both kite species will forage together over pastures full of grasshoppers; the resulting spectacle is like viewing a live mobile, all wheeling, spinning, dipping and eating on the wing.

This is a picture of one in hand trapped for a cross-continent radio tracking effort by my friend Dr. Jennifer Coulson.

The Boat-tailed Grackle [Quiscalus major]

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Darren and Helen will know another sort of blackbird on their side of the Atlantic. This one is an Icterid, from a group including fan favorites like the orioles. Some in the family are brightly-hued, but ours are mostly dark brown or flat black. The adult male Boat-tail takes black one step further with a glossy sheen around his nape, gleaming like polished blue metal but without pigment: a bioengineering feat called “structural color.”

These birds are tough. From a piece on local falconry I placed in International Falconer Magazine: “There are seven species of blackbird native to Louisiana, and all are considered “crop depredators” with no closed season or bag limit. They range in size from the Brown-headed Cowbird [Molothrus ater], about the weight of a large sparrow, to the Boat-tailed Grackle, a glossy, coastal bully the size of a small crow. The latter can be formidable quarry for the smallest trained hawks, but the tiercel Harris’ deals with them easily.”

You find Boat-tails here in wet places; mostly along the drainage ditches and canals that keep the rest of us dry. When they aren’t poking through the reeds for invertebrates and small aquatic animals (the smaller Common Grackle eats sparrows!), they’re playing King of The Hill. With backs arched, big heads up and tails fanned, males posture at one another, strutting and calling with loud clicks and whirrs like Geiger counters gone mad. I call it the cackle of the grackle. The sound makes my hawks’ heads spin.

The Eastern Meadowlark [Sturnella magna]

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Another blackbird: not that you would guess it. The meadowlark is Icteridae’s answer to a quail. There are two forms in the US, Eastern and Western (a third, and maybe others south of the border) separated by their calls and somewhat by habits and habitat but mostly along a wide, slanted line from Southeastern Arizona to the Great Lakes. Here they are birds of fallow pasture, sometimes foraging in mowed grass but never more than a short flight away from better cover.

They are gorgeous all around. Bright yellow in front and patterned finely as a game bird on the back. You have to hold one to get the full effect, and that’s usually illegal, but whatever.

This is a bird I see along the road to work only if I take the route beside the Mississippi River. Below the levee are still a few pastures for cows and horses and in them the meadlowlarks still sing. I know there are a few good places left when I hear one. And when I see one flush, straight-away and fast like a Scaled quail, I lock up—instinctively on point. I feel much farther than half a mile from home.

4 thoughts on “Matt’s Ten Birds Part 1”

  1. Three of these or near equivalents are in NM, despite the difference in aridity etc. The Mississippi Kite is mostly well east of here, on the plains, though I have seen one on the Rio Grande; our big grackle is the Great- tailed, but very similar (once thought to be conspecific I think); and our Meadowlark is the Western and a better singer though otherwise almost identical. The last two are right in Magdalena.

  2. Great stuff. I especially liked your writing about kites. Many years ago I read an account of a number of Swallow-tailed Kites in…one of the Guianas??…plucking fruits from a large cork tree and eating them on the wing.

  3. Hey Carel, thanks!

    I could believe STKs plucking fruit. Up close their faces remind you honey-buzzards (no subraorbital ridge) and their little stumpy toes and dull talons don’t give much of a freight in the hand. 🙂 Yet Jennifer C and I have seen them carrying birds (probably fledglings) and I know they catch tree snakes.

    The MKs have much more convincing hawk-faces and certainly do catch some adult birds. But their feet are not much more robust or well-armed than a STKs. It’s kind of remarkable to me these birds can catch things on the wing with them…

  4. PS: I mentioned the STK fruit eating to Jennifer, my friend who studies them, and she says she knows of this but wonders if maybe insects within the fruits are the real target. Considering their use of wasps nest, this would be pretty easy for them.


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