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Mystery bird prepares to migrate

Kite Chick
Wildlife Center of Virginia
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This nestling arrived at the Wildlife Center of Virginia July 9th.

It’s migration season for hawks and other raptors, and thousands will be passing through Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge – among them a small bird that mystified the experts there.

On July 9th, the Wildlife Center of Virginia welcomed a baby bird to Waynesboro. Rehab supervisor Kelsey Pleasants examined the nestling.

"lt was found in the middle of a road and was generally healthy except it had a puncture wound on its abdomen," she recalls. "We suspect that it was a predator attack – another bird that caught it and then dropped it. 1 – He was completely down feathers, so all white, and we identified him as a Cooper’s hawk."

Those are pretty common in the Blue Ridge, but as time passed this bird seemed too small to be a Cooper’s Hawk. Maybe, Pleasants thought, it was a sharp shinned hawk, but – again – there were doubts.

"He was not behaving like we would expect a sharp-shinned hawk to behave. He was not flying away from us. He was just standing and watching us calmly," she explains. "He also was not eating on his own. This guy has been offered mouse, chick, rat, quail – we were trying everything to get him to eat.”

Hawks are carnivores, but the mystery bird turned its beak up when offered meat. Then his adult feathers began to grow in, Pleasants and others at the center realized they had a bird never before admitted to the Wildlife Center of Virginia – a Mississippi kite.

"And that made everything click into place," Pleasants says with a smile.

Kites eat insects, and this bird devoured them, but one question remained. This species is normally found in the deep south, so how did he get to Virginia? Pleasants asked around and discovered that in the age of climate change, some kites are coming north.

"There’s a little tiny blurb that’s starting to form in central Virginia, towards the Richmond area of kites, and a couple of years ago there was actually a reported breeding pair there as well, and this kite ironically came from the Richmond area."

Juvenile Kite
Wildlife Center of Virginia
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A mature kite weighs less than a pound but migrates to Brazil or Argentina for the winter.

Now she’s preparing the baby for his first trip south.

'He does not have the experience of migrating. He doesn’t have the experience of finding food on his own. I’ve been bringing him katydids and other insects I find at my house to try to teach him what types of things he should be looking for but a lot of their behaviors are instinctual as well."

Rockfish Gap is about a mile from the center, so Pleasants has been watching the website E-bird, where observers report seeing kites and other raptors. If it looks like a group of them is headed this way, she’ll be ready to release the bird so it can join its kin for the long trip to its winter home in South America.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.