This sleek, acrobatic, crow-sized raptor breeds in the central and southern Great Plains, limited areas of the Southwest, and southern states along the Mississippi River and east of it. In the Great Plains it can be locally abundant, usually nests colonially, and since the mid-1970s has nested abundantly in many urban areas. In the east it is less colonial, less abundant, and still nests primarily in old-growth forest. It can be conspicuous or almost undetectable, depending on censusing methods and weather.
This kite is often described as an insect eater, taking only occasional frogs or lizards. Vertebrates, however, including small birds and mammals, are more frequent and important prey than commonly thought, at least for some individuals and populations. Individuals perch and hunt from exposed sites, but also on the wing, making this a conspicuous soaring raptor, either singly or in flocks. Foraging flocks of more than 25 are not unusual at any time of the year.
A sometimes gregarious woodland nester, the Mississippi Kite uses a wide variety of habitat throughout its breeding range. In the Great Plains it is often abundant in areas with numerous mature shelterbelts (windbreaks) and in urban areas. Roosting groups, often with 10 or more individuals, are frequently near one or more nests. Urban nests and roosts are often in city parks, residential areas, and also golf courses.
Although appearing falconlike in high-speed flight and strong winds, the Mississippi Kite can soar persistently with spread primaries and rectrices, thus altering its appearance considerably. Gray-and-black plumage usually distinguishes an adult from similar raptors and other species; juveniles and yearlings pose identification challenges.
Despite a normal clutch of only 2 eggs, numbers of this species have increased in the western U.S. as a result of postsettlement habitat changes caused by humans. Kites often attack people that venture too close to their nests, mainly in urban areas, and this has created many public relations, management, and educational challenges in at least 5 western U.S. states.
Studies of the Mississippi Kite are not numerous, but those since 1968, including partly or wholly unpublished master's theses and a doctoral dissertation (Parker 1974b, Evans 1981b, Shaw 1985), have corrected misunderstandings of clutch size, prey taken, nesting habitat, and abundance. These studies emphasized the species' large Great Plains population, but also involved smaller local populations in the Mississippi River valley and the recently colonized southwestern United States. Consequently, there is considerable documentation of reproductive success (Parker Parker 1974b, Parker 1975, Parker 1996, Evans 1981b, Glinski and Ohmart 1983, Shaw 1985, Gennaro 1988a, Barber et al. 1998b), mortality factors (including the impact of pesticides) and other demographic factors (Fitch 1963, Parker Parker 1974b, Parker 1988a, Parker 1996, Evans 1981b, Glinski and Ohmart 1983, Shaw 1985, Gennaro 1988a, Franson 1994), nesting and foraging behavior (Sutton 1939, Skinner 1962, Fitch 1963, Parker Parker 1974b, Parker 1988a, Evans 1981b, Glinski and Ohmart 1983, Davis 1989b, Botelho et al. 1993, Wischusen 1998), and changes in population size and distribution (Parker and Ogden 1979, Parker Parker 1975, Parker 1988a, Parker 1996, Glinski and Gennaro 1988, Meyer 1990a, Sweet 1991). Little is known of the Mississippi Kite outside the United States.