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The Red Kite in West Wales

Once one of the commonest British 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! 

The Red Kite has been more commonly seen in West Wales over the last few years. We frequently see them hovering and soaring above the sea cliffs on the A487 between Aberaeron and Llanon. Ten years ago, they were established further inland around the hills of Tregaron and Llandewi Brefi, but they seldom ventured to the Ceredigion coast. 

Most 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. That aside, 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 red with distinctive white patches under the wings and a lighter coloured head. The legs and feet are yellow. 

The Red Kite spends long hours soaring on the rising air currents above a hillside, often without flapping its slender wings for many minutes. The bird is superbly adapted as a glider, with a wing span of almost 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 the slightest up draught. Only when it sees prey or encounters a challenger is there a change in its routine.

The Red Kite and its relatives

There are thirty one members of the  Kite 'family' found throughout the world. They belong to the larger order  Falconiformes which includes the Eagles, Vultures, Buzzards and Hawks. Of these, only three species are commonly seen in Europe. They are the Red Kite Milvus milvus, the Black Kite Milvus migrans and the Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus.

Present distribution

The Red Kite is very much a European bird being found from Latvia in the north to Sicily in the south with one of its smaller populations being in Britain - primarily the Cotswold and Chiltern hills in England and central and western Wales. The largest populations of Red Kite are in Spain, France and Germany. 

Historical

The Red 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 the Gower peninsula in South Wales along with the remains of straight-tusked elephant, hippopotamus, mammoth, soft-nosed rhinoceros, cave bear, wolf and lion. At that time, the English channel did not exist and Britain was part of the European mainland. South Wales was joined to Somerset and Devon by a deep wooded valley and the birds and animals were untroubled by Mankind - he had not arrived in Britain then. 

Mesolithic hunter-gatherers arrived some ten thousand years ago and set about changing the natural landscape. Farming began about six thousand years ago and for the first time Mankind found himself in competition 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 mentioned by Chaucer in the Knight's Tale (c 1390) and London was described by Shakespeare as a 'city of Kites and Crows'.

A rare leucistic Red Kite - This kite is a rare colour variation, and has survived probably because of the various Red Kite feeding stations that have been established. Although mainly white, this kite has blue eyes and some darker colouration in its plumage. It is not an albino, which would be completely white with pink eyes.

William 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'. 

In 1457, James the second of Scotland decreed that the Kite should be killed wherever possible, but it remained protected in England and Wales along with the Raven for another hundred years, as it served the 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 encouraged to 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 number of 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 numbers 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 being central Wales. In recent years, the Red Kite has increased in numbers - particularly in Wales and around the Chiltern Hills in England and is not now the rarity that it was just a few years ago. 

The Life cycle of the Red Kite

The Red Kite mates for life and forms a relationship with its mate at between two to four years of age. They nest early, beginning nest building as early as February with the two to four eggs being laid in March or April. The nests are untidy structures in trees - usually Oak trees and are up to one metre in diameter. They are  often decorated with sheep's wool, plastic bags and other collected items, while the nest lining is made from sheep's wool. In medieval London, the Kite would take handkerchiefs and small items of clothing from washing lines - so much so that Shakespeare wrote: 'When 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 garter.'

The 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 the young birds.  The young Kites remain in the nest for about eight weeks until they are fully fledged and ready for their first flight.

The Red Kite has very keen eyesight and can detect the minute movements of small animals from high in the air. Its diet is varied, ranging from invertebrates to small mammals and birds and carrion. However, it will not kill a lamb or sheep although it will feed from the carcass of a dead 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 talons. 

After several minutes it became apparent that both birds were better at defence than offence, for we only saw them make contact once; a single feather falling to the field below as they separated.

Soon the two birds were very close and no more than a hundred metres from us. Now it seemed the Crow had tired of the battle, for it swooped into a big old oak tree at the bottom of a sloping meadow below us, taking refuge in its nest high in the branches.

The 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.

Somehow 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 the fight was rejoined, the birds circling the Oak tree and the Crow taking occasional refuge in its branches. We watched the birds for a good ten minutes as the Kite became more aggressive and the Crow became at the same time more defensive. They flew lower and lower as the duel continued, the birds descending into the valley below the meadow. We waited for some time, expecting to see the birds appear again

Some hours later the Crow and its mate were back at the nest in the Oak tree and the Kite was circling high above the valley, once more a dot in the sky. Only later did we discover that the Kite was also nesting close by. This explained its aggressive behaviour toward the Crow as it too came close to its nest! Later we saw this aerial jousting repeated a number of times, but only when the Kite flew low over the fields near the crow's nest. Much of the time the Kite would soar high above the valley where it seemed the crow did not wish to venture. Despite their close proximity, both the Kite 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 and aerial skill of the Red Kite. I watched it executing complex aerial manoeuvres from both below and from above as it swooped down into the valley and feel privileged to have shared these moments with one of Britain's rarest species.

photos & text   Rod Attrill