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King of the Skies - Red Kites

Red Kites are among the most majestic of birds found in UK skies, but they have not always been a common sight. Beth Critchley looks at their near extinction and celebrates how their numbers are now flourishing for World Wildlife Day.

The UN World Wildlife Day is celebrated annually on the 3rd March, with the aim to highlight the unique roles and contributions of wildlife to people and the planet. The Red Kite is one of the most impressive raptors in the UK and definitely a favourite among birdwatchers. With their red-brown colour and unmistakable forked tail they can be easily spotted when soaring high. I remember seeing a Red Kite flying above me for the first time and feeling incredibly privileged. Whilst these birds may be flourishing now, they got very close to extinction in the middle of the 19th century and so every time I see one I can’t help but smile and feel optimistic.

A group of five Red Kites soaring in the sky. Image credit: Tim Morgan on Unsplash.

In the mid-15th century, King James II wanted Red Kites to be “killed wherever possible”, and although they stayed protected in England and Wales for the next 100 years as they kept the streets free of carrion, in the 16th century they began to be seen as vermin and bounties were rewarded for shooting them.

Furthermore, during Victorian times these birds were killed to be used in taxidermy as well as for egg collecting. The killing of Red Kites over many years caused their numbers to decline dramatically, leaving the species locally extinct in England, Scotland and Ireland, with fewer than ten breeding pairs remaining in Wales in the 1930s and 40s. It is awful to think of how close we came to losing this majestic bird.

After the formation of a Kite committee made up of naturalists, local landowners and farmers, along with RSPB bounties being paid to farmers with successful nests, the Red Kite population increased in Wales to 100 breeding pairs in 1993. Whilst the Welsh population of Red Kites was doing well, it was thought that the land was not productive enough to sustain a very large population, and so Natural England and The RSPB decided to reintroduce European Red Kites instead.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus). Image Credit: Pavel Sirotkin on Wikimedia Commons.

In 1989 the birds were introduced into Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and the Black Isle in Easter Ross. After populations in these areas successfully began to flourish, the birds were introduced to many different areas across the UK and we have seen a staggering population increase of 1935% between 1995-2020.

Winter distribution change of Red Kites between 1981-1984 to 2007-2011. Image credit: Map from Bird Atlas 2007-11, which was a joint project between BTO, Birdwatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, and reproduced with permission from the BTO.

The breeding population of Red Kites in the UK in 2016 was 4400, showing the incredible success of the Red Kite reintroduction efforts. This magnificent bird’s population has come a long way; from being almost extinct in the 19th century to now holding a UK conservation green status, and I for one am extremely happy about it.

Red Kites are large birds, with an impressive wingspan of 185cm. Their diet consists mostly of carrion, although sometimes they will hunt for their prey, eating things like voles, mice, smaller birds and worms. They are monogamous and so return to the same nests each season, adding more material to the nests before laying eggs and rearing their young.

You might have never seen a Red Kite, or one may have flown above you and you just didn’t realise. If you would like to try spotting one here are three easy ways to do that; firstly the iconic forked tail. If you look up into the sky and see a large bird with a forked tail, it is most likely to be a Red Kite. Another common bird of prey you will often see is a Buzzard, however these birds have a rounded tail instead so are easily distinguishable.

Common Buzzard (left) compared to a A Red Kite (right). Image Credit: TheOtherKev on Pixabay.

Secondly, look out for a bird with the red-brown plumage that gives rise to its name, as well as dark tipped wings and a small patch of pale feathers on the underwing. Finally, listen out for its call: a loud screech that wavers slightly in pitch, and you can listen to exactly what they sound like here.

Red Kites have had a turbulent past, being rescued from the brink by many different hard-working people and organisations. They are becoming a much more common sight in our skies, and I hope that now when you go out for a walk you will be able to look up and spot them soaring above your head, as they truly are a magnificent bird.

About the author: Beth Critchley is a second year Environmental Science student studying at the University of York. She is particularly interested in paleoecology and paleoenvironments and hopes to do a PhD in this area before going into research or scientific journalism. You can find out more on her LinkedIn page.

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