June 16, 2011
Mississippi Kites copulating
Mississippi Kites copulating
Driving through the Midwest recently, flipping stations on a rental car radio looking for classic rock, I came across 1380AM (The Ticket), a sports talk show out of Lawton, Oklahoma.  The host and his two cronies, corroborating what women everywhere have always said, were discussing Maxim’s latest ranking of the world’s ten hottest women--whenever men get together it’s sports and sex, and not necessarily in that order.

I stayed for a couple minutes, heard one funny line (“If her back pockets meet, she’s definitely not top ten”), then moved on, but it got me to thinking about what attributes of birds are most attractive to birders, and how we rank the birds we like.  Most hard core birders have, even if it’s just a mental note, a “favorites” list, and favored families are often raptors, hummingbirds, or warblers.   What criteria inform these lists and why are raptors the “it” birds for so many despite their drab plumage and inability to sing?

On this trip I was spending late afternoons, the sun behind me, with a pair of Mississippi Kites I had found perched in the same creek bottom snags several days in a row.  Sure that they were establishing a nesting territory, I was trying to capture lifestyle images of these most graceful of aerialists, and my chain of thought after listening to the Maxim rankings led naturally to a personal ranking of North America’s raptors.

Raptors because they’re at the top of the food chain, fearsome and fearless hunters, untamable and free.  Raptors because of the awesome flight capabilities, the vision eight times more powerful than ours, the beak that is a shredding tool, the crushing talon strength and lethal claws.  Raptors because falconry became a sport for medieval royalty, a metaphor for war.  Here’s my list, in order.

BALD EAGLE—Yeah, I know Ben Franklin considered them piratical scavengers, but they will make their own kills and that ginormous beak is evolved to rip through the toughest fish scales.  They are our largest raptor, arguably our best species recovery story, and so deeply imbedded in our culture there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Challenger swept down out of the night sky to land on his handler’s arm as Lee Greenwood sang “God Bless the USA” before the fourth game of the 2001 World Series, some six weeks after 9/11.  Our nation’s symbol.  You gotta love it.

PEREGRINE FALCON—Yeah, I know Gyrs are bigger, badder, rarer, and more remote, and an Arab oil sheik once offered to write the Air Force Academy a check for $25,000 on the spot in exchange for its white Gyrfalcon mascot, but I’ve watched Peregrines turn White-throated Swifts into feather rain.  Swifts are called swifts for a reason but Peregrines have been clocked in stoop as the fastest bird, and Peregrines are inarguably our best species recovery story.

GREAT HORNED OWL—Yeah, I know Snowy Owls are bigger, rarer, and more remote, but they’re not badder.  Great Horneds are the size of Red-tails, and they’ll take Red-tails.  And they’re urban owls.  They live right here with us in desert city.  Not a week goes by that I don’t hear or see one.  Oh, you forgot owls are raptors?  They take skunks by the dark of the moon.  And they take feral cats.  You gotta love that.

NORTHERN GOSHAWK—A bird specialist that combines Red-tail size with accipitrine ability to zig and zag through dense forest in prey pursuit is one awesome raptor.  And everything you’ve heard about Gos nest protection is true.  Been there, done that once in southern Arizona, staring right at a literal translation of “losing face.”

MISSISSIPPI KITE—This is a supreme aerialist that needs two flaps to launch, then spends hours aloft catching dragonflys on the wing without further wingbeats, even in the highest winds.  It’s little wonder man made toy kites were named after them or that, after nearly a week of daily observation, I fell in love and ranked them in my top five.

The accompanying Mississippi Kite images speak to the sport and the sexiness of raptor observation.  And a lot of women are raptor aficionados.  Oh, and I found that classic rock station.  It’s 104.7FM (The Bear) out of Wichita Falls, Texas.

Mississippi Kite prey exchange
Mississippi Kite prey exchange