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Kites: Birds of Glory
As a rule, raptors, or birds of prey, are among the most admired and adored birds in the world. From the California condor to the snowy owl, few birds compare to the tigers of the air: the great hunters whose beauty and skill have inspired art and literature for centuries. The most glorious feathers of the peawingspan or the vibrant plumage of a bunting cannot compete with the power of a peregrine falcon or the determination of an osprey. Included in this group of hunters, however, is one bird of prey that is little known but equally impressive. The kites of the world are generally smaller than most raptors, but just as astonishing in skill and grace as any other hunter of the skies.
Most people think of paper or cloth structures flown with string from the ground when the word 'kite' is used. In addition to these popular toys, kite can also refer to a type of raptor. Kites have a small head, a short beak and long narrow wings and tail. Kites can be found all over the world in mostly warm regions. Kites live on a variety of prey—from insects to small rodents or reptiles. Some kites eat only one kind of prey. Kites are generally masterful in the air and represent a group of birds that are among the most acrobatic of fliers.
Two of the most familiar kites in the Southern United States are the swallow-tailed kite and the Mississippi kite. The Mississippi kite is rather plain to look at: a light brown and gray body with a buff or white colored head. But to watch a Mississippi kite fly is to watch a ballet in the air. These raptors eat primarily flying insects, so they do most of their hunting on the wing. As you might imagine, catching flying insects requires a great deal of agility and speed. If you are lucky enough to see one in flight, you will be amazed at the quick turns, graceful moves, and speedy pursuits of this bird. Look for them above large fields, especially during the summer.
The swallow-tailed kite, also common in the South, is more easily identifiable and often seen flying over roads. With black wings and tail, white head and body, and a forked or swallow-like tail, this raptor is just as acrobatic as the Mississippi kite. Swallow-tailed kites like flying over highways in the summer as they can take advantage of the thermals, or columns of warmed air, that rise above the pavement. Once they have climbed to sufficient height, swallow-tails will glide, looking for snakes and reptiles and insects. They also eat small rodents, frogs, and other birds on occasion. Watching a swallow-tail fly is a lot like watching a gymnast perform a floor routine. Rarely flapping its wings, it uses its forked tail to make sharp turns, trace circles in the sky, or simply maintain a heading. Skilled, accomplished, and graceful, this bird is as entertaining as it is beautiful.
Both kites are known to eat while flying, unlike most other birds of prey. This practice conserves energy and allows them to hunt almost continuously. While these kites are not listed as endangered, they are rare and in some states are listed as critical. Loss of habitat is the main reason for the decline. If you are lucky enough to see one, count yourself among the few. These magnificent birds are a sight you won't soon forget.
What are the key differences between swallow-tail and Mississippi kites? Use details and quotations from the text to support your answer.