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Up until the 16th Century, red kites were one of the most common birds in the UK, but that changed after a series of Vermin Acts passed in Tudor times deemed that red kites were to be killed because it was feared they posed a threat to sheep farming. The increase in the number of game keepers in the 18th Century further purged the population as red kites were thought to predate birds reared for game and sport.  Of course, these kinds of fears were unwarranted as the species is known to primarily feed on carrion and mammals no bigger than rabbits.

Thanks to a small group of people in 1903 the first kite committee was started initiating a nest protection scheme that eventually led to an official reintroduction programme being established in England and Scotland 1989.  The initial release of breeding pairs in the Chilterns led to the release of red kites at Rockingham Forest in the mid 90’s, and since then the population has continued to expand and they are now widespread in the region where I live.

But there are still threats, primarily in the form of poisons intended for other animals such as foxes and crows, and red kites are also often vulnerable when eating rats that have been killed via the use of rodenticides.

Nevertheless, once on the brink of extinction, the red kite represents a tremendous conservation success story.

 

 

 

 

 

Red Kites
March 2013



For some months I have been working with David Cobham on his forthcoming book for Princeton University Press on birds of prey.  Birds of Prey and Us (due for publication in Autumn 2014) looks at the cultural history and current conservation status of the 15 species, at the same time relating observations and experiences and his personal involvement in the lives of these magnificent birds.

David and I have worked together a number of times over many years, and we have made journeys together to watch birds of prey.  So some of the narrative, therefore, reflects times together watching and sketching eagles, kites, buzzards, harriers and falcons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few weeks ago we went to Northamptonshire and met up with two members of the team involved over many years with the very successful red kite reintroduction programme.  They took us to a landfill site where I was able to sit for a few hours in the morning overlooking an operation where trucks disgorging chaotic streams of garbage were shrouded in a mist of gulls, corvids, buzzards and red kites.

Later, we went to a location where kites were feeding on carcasses laid out for them at the edge of a field.  All around were birds coming and going from the feeding station, sometimes bickering and chasing each other, with other s sitting high in the branches of surrounding trees watching and waiting their turn.

 

 

This wing-tagged bird was presen5 for an hour or so feeding on the pheasant carcasses tipped at the edge of a field.This wing-tagged bird was presen5 for an hour or so feeding on the pheasant carcasses tipped at the edge of a field.

 

 Red Kites at a large rubbish dump in Northamptonshire.  There were about 20 or 30 birds gathered with many hundreds of gulls and starlings.Red Kites at a large rubbish dump in Northamptonshire. There were about 20 or 30 birds gathered with many hundreds of gulls and starlings.Their distinctive forked tail and striking colour - predominantly chestnut red with white patches under the wings and a pale grey head – and huge wing span (nearly 2 metres), make red kites unmistakable in flight.   They are incredibly agile, but are neither particularly strong nor aggressive despite being large birds. Primarily a scavenger and an opportunist red kites profit from carrion but are not readily capable of opening up sheep or lamb carcasses.  They have to until more powerful birds such as ravens or buzzards have made the first inroads before it will attempt to feed.  As predators they take a wide variety of live prey, ranging from earthworms to small mammals, amphibians and birds.