Coach Sean McDonnell's unexpected backyard guests

Monday, October 1, 2018
Birdwatchers in Durham

Head football coach Sean McDonnell ’78 has a reputation for attracting uncommon talent to Durham, but nothing quite like his recent backyard guests. In July, a pair of Mississippi kites — a species of small hawk rarely seen north of Virginia — took up residence in a tall pine in McDonnell’s yard, where they hatched a singleton chick.

McDonnell and his wife,Jenny Sheehan, became aware of the birds after Sheehan approached a group of people with binoculars who had gathered at the end of their driveway. “They said, ‘Oh my God, it’s this very rare bird that belongs down south, and we think it had a baby and it’s in your backyard,’” Sheehan says. According to the New Hampshire Audubon Society, Mississippi kites’ typical habitat is the region that spans from Texas to South Carolina, with rare sightings as far north as the mid-Atlantic region.

The nest in the McDonnell/Sheehan backyard, one of three in New Hampshire, drew more than 100 birdwatchers, including a group of ornithology students from Cornell University. But the hawks’ hosts may be the birds’ biggest fans of all. “The first thing Sean would say is, ‘Did you see the birds today? How are they? Where’s the baby? Is he out of the nest?’ It was kind of like we were raising a new kid,” Sheehan recalls.

The kites departed in September after their chick fledged, but experts say they’re likely to return next summer. Mississippi kites mate for life and return to the same nest year after year.

—Written by Jennifer Crompton ’82, adapted from