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Red Kite | The Comeback Kid

Isaac is an 18 year old from Woking in his second year at agricultural college. He is studying Animal Management and has an interest in all things related to the natural world. He is passionate about prehistory - his love of dinosaurs has led to a particular interest in birds as their direct descendants.

In my opinion, the red kite is an iconic British predator. Its brilliant comeback tells the tale of a species with a tragic but remarkable history.



Red kites are, as their name implies, part of the Kite family with other members including the black kite and pearl kite. These birds of prey are easily recognisable by the brown and red colouration of their wing feathers, white and orange on their midsection and their distinctive v-shaped tail feathers.



Being natural predators, they are most active and visible during the spring and summer months soaring high up above on warm thermal currents. They peer down from a great height, using their sharp eyesight to scan for any potential prey. However, it might be thought quite ironic that red kites, unlike other birds of prey, are not renowned for their hunting skills. They are actually really poor hunters - their talons aren't strong enough to kill most prey. They are more suited to scavenging, as their intimidating wing span (of 175-180 cm), and their general weight of (0.8-1.3 kg), helps them to secure any carcass they might come across.



Their history started out positively. Fifteen hundred years ago, red kites dominated the skies across medieval England, so much so that they were a common sight across towns and villages. They regularly dived down into busy markets and streets to snatch up scraps of food and rodents. Because of this, they became protected by royal decree for their job as a street cleaner. It even became a crime to kill one, and was punishable by death (remember, never kill a royally-protected species!).


Unfortunately, things took a very bad turn for them. In the 17th century, when their population across the UK skyrocketed into the tens of thousands, people began to feel uncomfortable with the high volume of red kites flying into towns and villages. People (mostly farmers and game keepers) started to hunt them for sport and take their eggs. The tides turned within the royal chambers too. Henry VIII and the Tudors commissioned the ‘Vermin Laws’, offering a bounty for any animal that might threaten farmland including: the red kite. The raptor eventually became officially extinct in England in 1871 and in Scotland in 1879. It was an absolute catastrophe, and it looked like the same terrible fate was coming to the red kites in Wales too.



Since then, red kites have made a colossal comeback thanks to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), who reintroduced the birds in 1989 to Scotland and Southern England. Further conservation groups have also helped the reintroduction of red kites to Ireland and Northern Ireland. All kites in Wales can now in fact be traced back to one single female! Thanks to their successful breeding, lack of natural predators and lack of competition for food (in the form of other large birds of prey like buzzards, kestrels and owls) they have flourished. Currently, 1800 breeding pairs are estimated to be in England. There is no longer a need for the RSPB to survey them.



Where I live in the South East, we are very fortunate that it is fairly common to see red kites. Taking a drive down the M4 you can often look up and see them flying high above, circling for prey. Personally, as a huge fan of the red kite - a bird with unique coloration and unusually-shaped tail feathers - I would like to see it recognised as the National Bird of Prey for the England, just like the US has done for the Bald Eagle, and Mexico and Scotland have for the Golden Eagle.

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