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Great kiskadees, vocal, showy, master builders

Published June 3, 2023 in the McAllen Monitor


Story and photos by Anita Westervelt


It’s hard to misidentify a bird that arrives announcing itself by name, like the great kiskadee, with its vociferous, crackling kiss-ka-deeeee!


Great Kiskadee. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Great kiskadees are resident birds whose northern range is the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Their range extends south to Central Argentina. If their boisterous call isn’t attention-getting enough, their bright yellow underparts, yellow underwing linings and cinnamon-colored wings and tail easily capture notice. They have a 16-inch wingspan.


Great kiskadees are somewhat urbanized, which makes them easy and fun to observe. Several hang out around our yard and the thorn scrub along the opposite banks of the resaca. Two paired up a couple of weeks ago and began building a nest.


Both sexes get involved in the nest construction. They use a unique architectural design, building a domed nest in the shape of a fat football. The nest has one entrance that is built into the side. They are creative with their materials, using what’s nearby, whether vegetative or manmade. Thin twigs, long grasses, weeds, vines, mosses and bits of bark are used to weave the structure. The nest is lined with soft materials like cotton and feathers.


Typically, great kiskadees choose a secure fork of a tree or bush from six to 50 feet above the ground. The construction materials are first firmly attached onto the platform then the sides are built up and then the roof. The finished nest is a bulky, woven structure about 10 inches tall and 18 inches wide. The top of the nest hangs over the entrance hole like an awning.


Our bird pair chose their location well, weaving the base in the junction of several sturdy limbs in a tall, but partially dead, avocado tree damaged in the winter freeze of 2020. We’ve kept it standing because it’s an active way station for our yard birds. During the nest building activity, there was a golden-fronted woodpecker, mourning dove, curved-billed thrasher, a couple of mockingbirds and a king bird, all at the same time, perching or busy snapping up bugs from the tree branches.


It was fascinating to watch the great kiskadees begin building their nest. They ignored the other birds in the tree and busily began collecting nearby materials. Just below their chosen spot was a downed palm frond. The kiskadees took turns plucking and ripping strands from the brown leaf sheaf as they hovered over it, then they'd carry the shreds to the nest site.


Kiskadees hover while collecting materials for nest building. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Building the platform for a nest. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Nest construction takes up to 14 days. Sadly, their nest-building skills were no match for the spate of windstorms that wreaked havoc with their construction before they were able to fortify it. The nest was scattered around the yard. Out of curiosity, I examined some of the debris and laughed at their choice of materials. They’d chosen several small bundles of one of my favorite native plants: peppergrass, with its tiny heart-shaped seed pods still intact.


A Great Kiskadee nest in the works. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)
Strands of peppergrass woven into the nest. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Whether the two kiskadees rebuilt elsewhere, we’re not privy to the location, and all our chatty kiskadees are still hanging around, entertaining us with their happy chatter.

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