Red kite

Red kite overheadA bird that I never fail to marvel at when I see it in flight is the magnificently graceful red kite, effortlessly riding the air currents on wings of nearly two metres in length, with only the occasional hint of a flap, using its long forked tail as a rudder to make small directional adjustments.

Nowadays it is a relatively common sight, so it is difficult to believe that the BTO 1968-72 breeding atlas showed that numbers had declined to just 19 breeding pairs, all confined to central Wales. What was perhaps even more alarming is that in the 1980s, blood samples were taken from a number of chicks in Welsh nests and subsequently DNA tests were conducted on those samples by scientists from Nottingham University. They showed that the whole population of Welsh kites were descended from just one female, never a good scenario for the long-term success of a small, isolated population.

Persecution was the reason behind the extermination of the bird from all other parts of Britain. The 16th Century saw a series of Vermin Acts, requiring ‘vermin’, including the red kite, to be killed throughout the country as they were deemed to be a threat to game, chickens and even sheep, as they were often found feeding on the carcasses of farm animals.

Red kites are primarily scavengers, however that is certainly not to say that they will not take young game birds and other “live” prey items, but they will clean a large carcass in a similar way to a vulture. Because they are a relatively weak bird, they rely on other predators to open up the tough skin, so that they can then access the soft flesh within. Decomposition also softens the dead animal’s skin, allowing kites to rip the body open themselves, devouring the putrid flesh. Just like vultures, they have highly specialised digestive systems, which produce powerful acids to neutralise rotting meat, making them resistant to bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli.

Historically red kites would have been a common sight in our larger cities such as London (Shakespeare referred to kites no fewer than 15 times), where they fed on the disgusting waste that littered the streets, thereby offering a useful service. Unfortunately, this apparent fearlessness of humans, which still exists in kites to this very day, made them particularly easy targets for those who wanted rid of them.

Between 1989 and 1994, kites from Spain were imported and released into the Chilterns by the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England). Red kites started breeding in the Chilterns in 1992 and now there could be over 1,000 breeding pairs in the area. Red kites of Swedish and German origin were also introduced to other parts of the country, while since 1999, chicks have also been taken from the Chilterns to re-introduction sites in other parts of the country. There are now estimated to be at least 1,600 pairs in the UK.

Shakespeare knew all about the peculiar penchant the “puttock” – a name that Shakespeare often used for the red kite (in Wales it was called boda wennol, meaning “swallow buzzard”) - has for lining its nest with a range of collected oddities, some of which might well be stolen from off the washing line. He warned “when the kite builds, look to lesser linen”, in The Winter’s Tale (Act 4, Scene 3).

Along with the usual material of grass and wool used for lining the nest, everything from football flags, magazine pages, plastic bags, tea towels, lottery tickets, socks to even a pair of frilly knickers have been found adorning kite’s nests! One nest even had a handbag in it, which prompted me to make a mental note to myself, that when I next misplace my car keys or bank cards, I think I will just blame it on the local pair of red kites!

Peter Thompson

Read more from Peter Thompson at his blog.

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