The Red Kite: Monarch of the Chilterns
"In 1449, King James II of Scotland decreed that they should be 'killed wherever possible', but they remained largely protected in England and Wales for the next 100 years"
It was a bright sunny morning, shortly after breakfast in 1990 when I saw my first red kite circling in the skies over Oxfordshire
I was staying at Manor Farm Cottage, a beautiful 400 year old half-timbered Grade II listed dwelling at the foot of the Chilterns in the peaceful hamlet of Henton, near Thame.
As a passionate ornithologist I was thrilled by the sighting, for this most impressive bird of prey had only recently been reintroduced into the area from Spain, where there was a healthy breeding population of red kites. My charming hosts, Trevor and Jean Dixon told me these birds quite often visited their garden and were becoming an increasingly common sight in Oxfordshire, particularly in the ancient woodlands along the Ridgeway.
Later that morning as my wife Rosemary and I set up our picnic table at the Henley Royal Regatta I clumsily spilt our first jug of Pimm’s as I continued scanning the skies over Remenham Hill, hoping to catch another glimpse of the bird, a habit that predictably continued throughout the day and even during dinner that evening on the terrace of the Leander Club, much to the annoyance of my wife and fellow members who kept reminding me I was missing some jolly competitive rowing.
The red kite (Milvus milvus) is quite simply the most beautiful bird of prey in Britain. This magnificently graceful raptor is unmistakable with its reddish-brown body, angled wings and deeply forked tail. For that matter there is no other bird of prey across the length and breadth of the red kite's range in Europe to rival this raptor's consummate aerial grace or the beauty of its distinct plumage.
The red kite would have once been such a common sight in England during the late 15th century that many of our major cities, towns and villages were populated by these mainly ubiquitous scavenging raptors. In Shakespeare's 'King Lear' he describes the mythical Celtic king's eldest daughter 'Goneril' as a "detested kite", and he wrote "when the kite builds, look to your lesser linen" in reference to their habit of stealing washing hung out to dry in the nesting season.
In 1449, King James II of Scotland decreed that they should be "killed wherever possible", but they remained largely protected in England and Wales for the next 100 years as they kept the streets free of carrion, rubbish and rotting food, for urban life in Medieval England would have offered all the necessary rich pickings that squalid living conditions provided.
Under Tudor "vermin laws" many creatures were seen as competitors for the produce of the countryside and bounties were often paid by the parish for their carcasses. The red kite began to suffer during the cleanup of our city streets. In 1491 an Act of Parliament put a "legal" bounty on their heads along with other species classed as foul or vermin. The number of kites killed during this ‘cleanup’ was enormous with records in Kent alone showing as many as 450 birds wiped out during a six year period.
The bird’s rate of extermination had a devastating effect on the breeding population. Later as with most other British raptors, kites suffered relentless persecution from gamekeepers and egg and skin collectors. Up to the 1920’s the birds were eventually completely eliminated from areas such as Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Middlesex, Shropshire, Devon and Cornwall.
This rapid culling was even more devastating in Scotland, where by the end of the 1890’s red kites had been totally destroyed throughout the whole country, save perhaps for a few breeding pairs in the Letterewe Forest in Wester Ross, the most northerly natural oak forest in the world.
The red kite's last remaining stronghold was Wales, whose wild hills, steep valleys and ancient woodlands offered some respite and breeding security for this most alluring bird of prey. Even here, they struggled on with numbers dropping to as little as a handful of birds. The Welsh red kite would have almost certainly been totally wiped out if it were not for the huge efforts of conservationists such as Roger Lovegrove of the RSPB and of numerous private individuals dedicated to saving these stunning raptors. Eggs of the red kite became highly prized specimens and sophisticated electronic devices were employed to keep the egg collectors at bay.
After a small dip in numbers due mainly to the loss of rabbits through the introduction of myxomatosis in the mid 1950’s and toxic farm chemicals in the 1960’s, the kite’s had battled through to register breeding numbers of approximately 46 pairs in 1980. It was claimed that this rare fork tailed monarch of the skies had been the focus of serious egg thieves who had visited over 80 of the known eyries. This represented a serious set-back for the growth of the species. But more likely the dangerously low figures were due to heavy deforestation, in poor breeding cycles and the reduction of sheep farming in Wales, an obvious source of badly needed winter carrion.
Continuing poor breeding figures and low productivity rates, meant that an experiment to take eggs from the wild and hatch them artificially, returning the young to nests at two weeks old, was tested in the late 1980’s. This attempt to intervene had limited results. At this crucial stage it was decided that a re-introduction programme in the suitable areas of Great Britain would be attempted.
In 1989, the Nature Conservancy Council (now known in England as ‘Natural England’) and the RSPB launched a project to reintroduce the red kite back into the British Isles and Scotland. After a strict criteria set out by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) was fulfilled, red kite chicks were brought into the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, from the Extremadura region of mid-west Spain, while a similar programme was also taking place on the Black Isle, a peninsula within Ross and Cromarty in the Highlands of Scotland.
Over a period of five years, more than 90 birds were brought into the Chilterns and initially placed into wooden release pens on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border. After a period of several weeks, and successful health checks, the kites were then released into the wild.
The first birds to be released were fitted with identification rings, numbered tags along with radio transmitters. The birds were distributed between Scotland and Britain. The kites were caged for a number of days during a quarantine period and then released. They relied on food placed around the cages but soon started to venture further afield and feed independently. Over the next five or so years, batches of a dozen birds were annually released in the same vicinity.
These first kites introduced from Spain and later Sweden showed early signs of survival in their new release locations. As a consequence of the release of so many foreign birds into their former habitats, red kite numbers are now at an all time high with these birds reaching breeding maturity, establishing new territories and securing the necessary habitat for roosting, they began to successfully raise young, who fledged back into the community. However, with such an increase in their numbers, home ranges began to become somewhat over populated. These birds however, adapted to their environment very quickly and through sticking together formed vast communal pockets.
The first successful breeding in the Chilterns took place in 1992, and since then numbers have steadily increased to approximately 400-500 breeding pairs. They are still actively monitored by experienced volunteers. With a growing population, the birds can frequently be seen over almost every village and town in the Chilterns, including larger towns such as High Wycombe, Watlington and Thame.
A walk along the Icknield Way is a good place to watch them gliding over the Chilterns escarpment, with the best viewing points between Watlington, Chinnor and Henton, such as Cowleaze Wood, the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve or even the Warburg Nature Reserve in the Bix valley near Henley-on-Thames.
In the Chilterns a familiar sight is that of dozens of red kites following the farmer in his tractor as he works the land. Much as gulls do, the kites follow in the wake of the tractor picking up insects, including beetles and earthworms. During the nesting season, these pickings are taken back to the nest for the chicks.
Adult red kites rarely roam great distances, preferring to remain close to the nest site throughout the year. Kites do not defend a ‘home range’ but rather a nest site, against raptors, corvids and other kites. The home range varies from within 2-4 km from the eyrie. During the breeding cycle and when food is vital for survival, kite foraging has been recorded up to 6km from the nest.
Studies of Welsh kites have regularly found that birds will travel distances of up to 20 km in a single day. It is important to note that since the re-introduction of birds from Spain and Scandinavia, the red kite’s breeding patterns have changed dramatically. In the 1950’s and 1960’s Wales was the only area where kites regularly bred. Pairs had dropped to single figures and the bird was placed on the Amber List of endangered species because of its historical decline. During these lean years, red kite eyries and their territories were vast distances apart. In common with most endangered birds, the rarity of these nests meant that they were kept a closely guarded secret. The introduction of large numbers of birds, sometimes 800 at a time onto carefully chosen estates and valleys throughout the UK, has caused the red kite’s natural behavioural patterns to change. The many ‘feeding stations’ now set up to give members of the public amazing close-up views of their aerial aerobatics, has prompted the birds to become much more communal. They have learned that they need to stick close to these areas for an ‘easy meal’ with roosting and nesting sites becoming tightly packed, so the natural tolerated territories has ceased to exist. In various woodland areas such as the southern Chilterns, red kite eyries can be found sometimes as close as 100 m apart, and even in the gardens of some of the towns and villages in the area. This adaptation means we are developing pockets of densely populated kite areas without the natural widespread distribution.
Some ornithologists have even suggested that our original ‘Welsh’ red kite was almost a sub-species all of its own, notably with a slightly more pointed egg, commonly marked with fine scratches and scribbles. The obvious interbreeding with foreign stocks, may have watered down this gene pool to a point of no return, resulting in what could be said is actually a hybrid ‘red kite.’
With territorial disputes still taking place in the immediate vicinity of the nest, we are now seeing more and more display flights that are now only several hundred metres apart. The solitary birds or pairs that were once cited as an ornithologist's rarity can now be observed on mass. Many birds in these pocketed areas will perform high circling displays, immediately over the nesting site. These soaring flights and extended wings will continue to rise to heights of 200 m above the forest canopy. Outside of the breeding season, large numbers of red kites can be seen to fly extremely high, circling together in close proximity. This usually takes places in fine weather, either early or late in the day.
After the initial display flights performed in March and early April, kites tend to be less vocal at these times than other birds of prey. The chosen nest site is usually among oak or pine woodland, although beech is also a common choice. Only the immediate vicinity is defended against other kites or members of the corvid family. The red kite's breeding success using coniferous plantations is not as successful as those choosing ancient oak or beech broadleaved woodlands. Nests are generally built on the foundation of an old crows, pigeon or buzzard nest which is added to by the kite. Most eggs are laid within the first week of April. The typical clutch of 1-4 eggs are laid into a deep cup which is often lined with wool, grasses and scavenged litter. Both sexes will help construct the eyrie; the female will do the majority of the incubation with both birds sharing the rearing of the young. Kites are known to be very susceptible to disturbance, with many nests being abandoned due to snowfall or unfamiliar intruders.
The productivity in Welsh red kites can be disappointingly low where nestlings have been known to even kill each other. The result of insufficient food, the wet and cold of the Welsh weather can also have a devastating effect. Infections through the putrefaction of their meat supply will also cause the young and vulnerable offspring to die. The fledging of a young red kite can be very long; anything from 50-70 days. At signs of imminent danger a mother will signal the young who will "play dead" when a predator is near. Fortunately kites have a long lifespan with birds often reaching ages in excess of 25 years. This may have aided their survival in difficult areas of population. The sheer numbers of red kite successfully breeding in Great Britain and Scotland will no doubt continue to rise, despite the continued loss of many of their ancestral oak woodlands and the competition from other raptor populations.
As time goes by it will be interesting to see if the areas that have a large head count will gently begin to disperse by natural roaming, or if the constant draw of an easy meal supplied by the various feeding stations will cause these birds to congregate even closer together forcing them to nest in ridiculous close proximity. Whatever the eventual outcome, it is a joy to see this long winged raptor hang on twitching wings, appear high in the sky with its trademark forked silhouette.
Red kites are very easy to identify in the wild. The obvious rich brick red colour and silvery head distinguish it from other large raptors but it is the long forked tail that surely sets it apart. Of similar size to a buzzard when perched, the kite in flight is dramatically different. The cruciform silhouette and long thin tail with distinctive ‘V’ are propelled on long slender wings. The giant wingspan of the red kite is far longer than the buzzard and the overall body shape is long and sleek. Their outstretched wings have a definite shoulder bend and pointed fingers. The flight seems buoyant and effortless; wings and fanned tail twitch independently to catch every available updraft. Wing beats are deep, elastic and slow. This leisurely flight pattern does not give any hint of the contrasting aerial acrobatics this majestic hunter can perform at a minutes’ notice. Kites when competing for food will display a whole host of jaw dropping flight manoeuvres, including diving with folded wings, banking upside down, rolling and spiralling with precision timing
The catalogue of tricks is reminiscent of a tern when hovering and selecting its target. In total contrast the red kite is a clumsy bird. When on the ground, it has a comical shuffling appearance interspersed with sporadic jumps and hops. When hunting from a great height, kites will soar in a circle over open country and at considerable height. They will also frequently glide over the ground, searching the area with down-turned heads. If carrion is spotted, the kite descends in circles to alight some distance away, before finally walking or hopping to the carcass. Often the kite arrives amongst other scavengers such as, foxes, buzzards, gulls and corvids, where a hierarchy is not specifically determined. Often the raven proves more dominant and this may be down to simply who arrived first or the degree of hunger. Kites tend to breed 7-10 days earlier then the buzzard which enables it to feed its young mainly on young corvids and gulls when these are abundant. The buzzard is more reliant on rabbits and voles for food. Breeding kites will hunt at any hour from 5am to 8pm and will cover vast areas when food is required for their growing chicks.
Red kites will only breed when 2-3 years old and begin to spend time within the breeding territory from as early as January. Pairs mate for life and although during winter periods the bond may be loosened, it is probably never severed completely unless death occurs. They are extremely loyal to their choice of breeding site, using the same tree for sometimes up to 20 years.
The nest is generally sited in the main fork or a limb of high a tree, preferably an oak, beech, birch or alder, usually 12-20 metres above the ground. If a conifer is used the larch is a particular favourite. The eyrie will be one of several, usually built upon the foundation of an old pigeon's nest or the deserted drey of a squirrel.
Typically, broadleaf woodlands, steep valleys and wetland edges are the most common nest site location. A distinct factor in identifying a kite’s eyrie is the lack of any green sprays or foliage and the smaller size compared to the nests of other birds of prey such as the buzzard, sparrowhawk or goshawk.
Kites nests are nearly always decorated with a whole host of random debris including; coloured fertilizer bags, farmers twine, cloth, paper, sacking, plastic beer can holders and even barbed wire. The outer nest itself is built up from medium sized twigs and branches that are woven together along with the refuse adornments. The inner bowl is lined with wool, hair, roots, cloth and rabbit fur. If the nest is successful during the breeding cycle it will generally be used the following year or certainly another nest close by. The red kite will easily desert the eyrie even if a clutch has been laid, if there is any human disturbance or continual harassing from large birds such as the raven.
The eggs of the red kite have many variable markings. The round eggs or more pointed eggs of the so called ‘Welsh Kite’ have a white or light cream background colour, which is covered in small spots and blotches. Some eggs will have a succession of long vein like squiggles in rust or deep purple. The build up of larger blotches and colouration tends to be towards one end of the egg. Commonly within a clutch of 2 or 3 this heavier patternation will alternate from top to bottom. Kites eggs sometimes appear with smoky blue-grey and lilac smudging beneath the stronger red brown markings. Often debris from the nest and prey remains will stain the eggs giving them a dirty appearance.
The typical nest site is found below 600 m of sea level. Kites prefer mature woodland for both roosting and breeding. Outside of these woodland areas, they require extensive low ground and moorland areas, including agricultural habitats for foraging. Arable areas, as well as land with mixed livestock and rough grazing, are favourable. The ‘modern day’ kite has learned that open roads and farm land provide sources of prey and a plentiful supply of carrion. Kites will return to stands of coniferous and broadleaf woodlands for communal roosting particularly in winter. In the Highlands the Scots pine is the most commonly recorded species for this purpose. Areas of deep vegetation and thick ground cover are avoided during the breeding season, presumably because prey is less easy to find.
Red kites tend to nest in the same restricted territories year after year. Each of these areas will hold several nests, some new builds and some refurbished older nests. As with most birds of prey, alternative sites are provided and today these will be no more than 100-200 m from each other. Where birds have paired up for the breeding cycle albeit as part of a close knit community, kites will return to large roosting communes, during winter months where as many as one hundred birds have been counted.
With their great wings angled back like thick fangs, the red kite will hopefully continue to fly in the skies over the Chilterns for many years to come, as if owning a secret of aerial mastery no other bird possesses ̶ but then such a magical bird deserves to keep some secrets.
Related Articles: Holland & Holland: the royal gunmaker