The Annals of Country Life: Mississippi kites

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Still in my pajamas (flannel, Black Watch pattern, from LL Bean) this morning, I glanced out the bedroom window and saw two raptors of a kind I had never seen before, sitting together in a cottonwood tree not thirty feet from the house. I am not a bird watcher in the sense of going out with binoculars and book specifically for that purpose, but I do like to identify the birds I see.

Easier said than done. Yes, physically the birds were clearly Mississippi kites. After that, the consensus is that Jameson must have been nipping at the whisky far too early in the day. As the name implies, this is not a bird one might expect to see in the southern Sierras at any time of the year, let alone in February.

I went to many sources, looking for solid, calcified, irrefutable information, but apparently bird-watching is like just about everything else in the world these days: the answer varies depending on who you ask.

Most of the sources I checked claim the farthest West the Mississippi kite is ever seen is in isolated colonies in New Mexico and Arizona, but even this does not include either their winter range (outside the U.S.) or their migratory range (late March to early April), both of which would seem to kind of rule out California in February.

I found a site that said the Mississippi kite was expanding its range, but then went on to clarify that by specifically narrowing the expansion northward in eastern states only. One site that allowed me to put in the identifying characteristics of the birds I saw, along with where, geographically, I had seen them, and the time year I had seen them, was unambiguous about the species, and expressed no doubt that I had seen them in California. Another site with the same format was equally unambiguous about the fact that I must have been nipping at the whisky. Yet another site caught my attention because it stated that the size was “larger than a rock pigeon” and rock pigeons is what I first thought I was looking at.

So, there you have it. If anyone has any concrete evidence of Mississippi kites breeding, migrating, wintering, or making permanent homes in California, I would love to hear from you. Are they casual visitors, tourists who come to see the sights, take the rides at Disneyland, look at the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, gaze in awe at the giant Sequoias, shake their heads over urban sprawl or this year’s flooding? Or is this a brand new, hitherto unrecorded phenomenon related to global warming or manifest destiny or something else entirely?

Any bird experts out there?

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