Once one of the commonest
birds of prey, the Red Kite became virtually extinct in this country.
Farmers, convinced it was taking their lambs, would put down poison to
kill it. The rarer it became, the greater became the value of its eggs
to collectors in recent years. Today, after a sustained programme of
reintroduction and protection, and after the prosecution of a number of
illegal egg collectors, the Red Kite is once more a relatively common
sight in Wales - if one knows where to look!
Red Kite has
commonly seen in West Wales over the last few years. We frequently see
and soaring above the sea
cliffs on the A487 between Aberaeron and Llanon. Ten years ago, they
established further inland around the hills of Tregaron and Llandewi
they seldom ventured to the Ceredigion coast.
of us who have seen a Red Kite
will have observed from a distance. We probably watched it soaring and
gliding over a
hillside as a dark silhouette, sometimes little more than a speck in
the sky. We
can't see much, little colour and hardly any movement of the wings.
we are usually delighted to have seen this rare bird. Close
up, the Red
Kite's distinctive colours can be clearly seen. The bird is a chestnut
distinctive white patches under the wings and a lighter coloured head.
and feet are yellow.
spends long hours soaring on the rising air
currents above a hillside, often without flapping its slender wings for
minutes. The bird is superbly adapted as a glider, with a wing span of
two metres, but with a body mass of only one kilo. Its long forked tail
provides the perfect balance and control required to take advantage of
slightest up draught. Only when it sees prey or encounters a challenger
a change in its routine.
Red Kite and its relatives
thirty one members of the Kite 'family'
found throughout the world. They belong to the larger order
which includes the Eagles, Vultures, Buzzards and Hawks. Of these, only
species are commonly seen in Europe. They are the Red Kite Milvus
the Black Kite Milvus migrans
and the Honey Buzzard Pernis
Kite is very much a European bird being found from
Latvia in the north to Sicily in the south with one of its smaller
being in Britain - primarily the Cotswold and Chiltern hills in England
central and western Wales. The largest populations of Red Kite are in
France and Germany.
Kite has been in Britain for a very long time. Red
Kite bones dating back 120,000 years have been found in the caves of
peninsula in South Wales along with the remains of straight-tusked
elephant, hippopotamus, mammoth, soft-nosed rhinoceros, cave bear, wolf
At that time, the English channel did not exist and
Britain was part of the European mainland. South Wales was joined to
and Devon by a deep wooded valley and the birds and animals were
Mankind - he had not arrived in Britain then.
hunter-gatherers arrived some ten thousand
years ago and set about changing the natural landscape. Farming began
thousand years ago and for the first time Mankind found himself in
with various wildlife species.
There is no doubt that in medieval
times, the Red Kite was
a common and familiar bird throughout Britain. The Red Kite is
Chaucer in the Knight's Tale (c 1390) and London was described by
a 'city of Kites and Crows'.
rare leucistic Red Kite - This kite is a rare colour variation, and
survived probably because of the various Red Kite feeding stations that
been established. Although mainly white, this kite has blue eyes and
colouration in its plumage. It is not an albino, which would be
with pink eyes.
Turner - born 1508 - wrote about the Red
Kite in Avium praecipuarum historia, 1544. He
noted that they would dare
to 'snatch bread from children, fish from women and
handkerchiefs from hedges'.
James the second of Scotland decreed that the
Kite should be killed wherever possible, but it remained protected in
and Wales along with the Raven for another hundred years, as it served
purpose of cleaning the streets of carrion.
A law was
passed in 1566 in which a number of birds and
mammals thought to be in competition with the rural community were
be killed. A bounty was established that offered 'one penney
for the head of
every Woodwall (Woodpecker), Pye, Jaye, Raven or Kyte.' Over
the next two
hundred years, a virtual war was waged by the rural community on a
birds and mammals, including the Red Kite, which were trapped and
killed to near
if not total extinction. The hobby of egg collecting did much to reduce
as they became even less common.
At the end of the
nineteenth century, there were only a
dozen or less Red Kites in Britain, their last refuge in these islands
central Wales. In recent years, the Red Kite has increased in numbers -
particularly in Wales and around the Chiltern Hills in England and is
the rarity that it was just a few years ago.
The Life cycle of the Red Kite
Red Kite mates for life and forms a relationship with
its mate at between two to four years of age. They nest early,
building as early as February with the two to four eggs being laid in
April. The nests are untidy structures in trees - usually Oak trees and
to one metre in diameter. They are often decorated with
plastic bags and other collected items, while the nest lining is made
sheep's wool. In medieval London, the Kite would take handkerchiefs and
items of clothing from washing lines - so much so that Shakespeare
the Kite builds, look to lesser linen'. In 1871, J. E.
Harting wrote that a
nest was decorated with 'small pieces of linen, part of a
saddle girth, a bit
of harvest glove, part of a straw bonnet, pieces of paper and a worsted
eggs are incubated mainly by the female Kite for
thirty one or thirty two days. After hatching, the male
brings food back
to the nest for the female, who tears it into smaller pieces to feed
birds. The young Kites remain in the nest for about eight
weeks until they
are fully fledged and ready for their first flight.
Red Kite has very keen eyesight and can detect the
minute movements of small animals from high in the air. Its diet is
ranging from invertebrates to small mammals and birds and carrion.
will not kill a lamb or sheep although it will feed from the carcass of
sheep after stronger scavengers have exposed the entrails.
A Red Kite Encounter
Crows are commonly seen mobbing
buzzards, less commonly Red kites. However, one such encounter this
Easter gave me an insight into the grace, beauty and skill of the Kite.
The combatants on this occasion first appeared from out of the distance
as no more than dots against the bluest of April skies. Only as they
came closer, jousting low over a deep valley could they be identified.
The crow flapping away continuously and lunging at the Kite with its
beak whenever the opportunity arose. In contrast the kite scarcely
moved its wings, folding and turning them only to change direction as
it tried to grab the crow with momentarily outstretched
minutes it became apparent that
both birds were better at defence than offence, for we only saw them
contact once; a single feather falling to the field below as they
Soon the two birds
were very close and no
more than a hundred metres from us. Now it seemed the Crow had tired of
battle, for it swooped into a big old oak tree at the bottom of a
below us, taking refuge in its nest high in the branches.
Kite circled the Oak tree once, then, folding its wings close to its
body plunged down towards the Crow and its nest just as a Peregrine
would stoop to its prey. As the Kite turned, the sunlight reflected
from the feathers, clearly showing the russet and white pattern atop
the wings. The dark silhouette had become transformed at once into an
object of beauty.
the Kite passed through the bare branches of the Oak without catching
the Crow or hitting any branches. The Kite was persistent, repeatedly
diving on the hapless Crow but without success.
Each swooping dive
brought raucous cries of
protestation from the smaller bird. The Crow took to the air again and
was rejoined, the birds circling the Oak tree and the Crow taking
refuge in its branches. We watched the birds for a good ten minutes as
became more aggressive and the Crow became at the same time more
flew lower and lower as the duel continued, the birds descending into
below the meadow. We waited for some time, expecting to see the birds
Some hours later the
Crow and its mate were
back at the nest in the Oak tree and the Kite was circling high above
valley, once more a dot in the sky. Only later did we discover that the
also nesting close by. This explained its aggressive behaviour toward
as it too came close to its nest! Later we saw this aerial jousting
number of times, but only when the Kite flew low over the fields near
nest. Much of the time the Kite would soar high above the valley where
the crow did not wish to venture. Despite their close proximity, both
and Crow families successfully raised their young.
I will always regard my
observations that day
as special. They certainly gave me new insights into the grace, beauty
aerial skill of the Red Kite. I watched it executing complex aerial
from both below and from above as it swooped down into the valley and
privileged to have shared these moments with one of Britain's rarest