Red kite (Milvus milvus)
|Size||Body length: 60 cm|
Wingspan: 170 cm
- Mainly a scavenger, the red kite feeds on animal carrion
- A monogamous species, red kites usually pair for life
- The red kite decorates its nest with paper, plastic, and other man-made materials, even stealing clothes left out to dry!
- With an impressive wingspan and bright yellow eyes, the red kite also has a distinctive forked tail which it uses like a rudder when in flight
- If food is in short supply, the smallest red kite chick may be attacked by its siblings in the nest
Classified as a red listed 'Bird of Conservation Concern' in the UK, and fully protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List.
The red kite has been described as 'the most beautiful bird of prey in Britain'. The plumage is a wonderful mixture of black, chestnut, grey and reddish-brown and the underwings have an obvious white patch contrasting strongly with jet-black wing-tips. In flight the red kite's most notable feature is the long, deeply forked tail. The wing-tips are strongly 'fingered' and the bird's soaring flight is one of the most graceful sights in the British countryside.
The red kite is almost entirely restricted to Europe. In Britain it is present throughout the year, whilst the majority of birds in central Europe move south to spend the winter in Iberia. The history of the British population is well known. Formerly a common and widespread bird, it was extinct in England and Scotland by 1900, and only a remnant population survived in central Wales. Today, the range of the red kite is expanding in the UK. Successful re-introductions have allowed the bird to re-colonise several parts of its former range and numbers are now increasing in several areas of England and Scotland.
Although often associated with woodland, the kite requires open habitats for foraging and birds can be seen drifting over both arable crops and grassland in their quest for food. It is a highly adaptable species and is able to thrive in a wide range of landscape types providing that the basic requirements of open areas for finding food, and woodland for nesting and roosting are met. Productive lowland landscapes support the highest densities of birds but kites are also found in the upland fringes where they forage over moorland and rough pastures.
The red kite is primarily a scavenger, taking a wide range of animal carrion including sheep, rabbits, birds and even waste from refuse dumps. In the past they were a common sight in some towns and cities where they scavenged amongst refuse. Kites also take live prey in the form of small mammals, birds and invertebrates.
Red kites tend to be monogamous and usually pair for life. A red kite's nest is an untidy arrangement of sticks, lodged in the fork of a tree, and often built on the base of an old crow nest. The nest is lined with sheep's wool and then 'decorated' with man-made materials such as pieces of paper, plastic or cloth. The red kite had a reputation for stealing garments left out to dry for use as nest decoration and Shakespeare referred to this habit when he wrote in 'The Winter's Tale' 'When the kite builds, look to lesser linen'. A clutch of one to four eggs is laid in April, and the bulk of the incubation duties are undertaken by the female. The male stays close to the nest at this stage, guarding against attacks by crows and other potential nest robbers. After about seven weeks the young birds leave the nest but remain dependant on the parent birds for food for a further three to four weeks. In contrast to the mainly site-faithful adults, some young red kites undertake long-distance movements and wandering individuals can turn up almost anywhere, often well away from the nearest breeding site.
In the countryside, red kites were formerly blamed for killing game and livestock and were persecuted relentlessly. Despite their scavenging habits, the bird's large claws and hooked bill were sufficient to condemn them in the eyes of many farmers and gamekeepers. By the early part of the 20th century, the British population was limited to a few pairs in remote parts of central Wales where levels of human persecution were lower. Sadly, kites in Britain still fall victim to illegal persecution, despite our greater knowledge of the bird and its habits. In England it is estimated that as many as 80 birds have been killed by poison baits during the last 10 years. These are often intended for crows and foxes but are indiscriminate and the kite, with its scavenging habits, is a frequent victim. An additional threat is posed by highly toxic anticoagulant rodenticides used to control rats. Red kites are at risk if they scavenge on rats that have been poisoned and subsequently die. In addition, the kite's eggs are a target for egg collectors.
It had long been hoped that red kites would find their way back to England naturally as their numbers increased in Wales. However, the Welsh population has been slow to increase and expand its range due to the low level of breeding success and reluctance for birds to breed far from the nest site where they themselves were reared. In order to improve the fortunes of the red kite it was decided to try to reintroduce them to suitable areas in England and Scotland. English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB began a project in 1989 using nestlings brought in from Spain and southern Sweden. The young birds were kept in captivity for six to eight weeks with minimal human contact, before being released into the wild. The red kite was one of the founding species in English Nature's Species Recovery Programme and represents one of the Programme's biggest success stories to date. Over a period of five years, 186 young kites were released in the Chilterns of southern England and in northern Scotland and self-sustaining breeding populations have become established in both areas. Further projects in England have resulted in a breeding population becoming established in the East Midlands (in partnership with Forest Enterprise) and releases began at the Harewood Estate in Yorkshire in 1999 in a project funded by Yorkshire Water.
In the year 2000, a breeding survey recorded 16 pairs in the Midlands, three pairs in Yorkshire, and well over 100 pairs in the initial release area in the Chilterns. Whilst the future of the red kite is by no means totally secure, the project has so far been a great success and is an excellent example of what can be achieved by a well-planned and carefully monitored reintroduction programme.
For more information on the red kite, see:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
You can see the red kite by visiting the Chilterns, Oxfordshire:
Royal Geographical Society’s Discovering Britain walks:
Information supplied by English Nature.
- Monogamous: having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.