Animal Spotlight: Red Kite

Taxonomy:

red_kite_web_gerry_whitlow
Photo By: Gerry Whitlow
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Accipitriformes
  • Family: Accipitridae
  • Genus: Milvus
  • Species: milvus
  • Average Body Length: 23.5 to 25.5 in (60 to 65 cm)
  • Average Wingspan: 67 to 77 in (170 to 195 cm)
  • Average Weight: 2 to 3 lbs (0.9 to 1.3 kg)
  • Average Lifespan: 10 years

This magnificently graceful bird of prey is unmistakable, with its reddish-brown body, angled wings, and deeply forked tail. It is almost entirely restricted to Europe. In Britain, it is presented throughout the year, while the majority of birds residing in central Europe move south to spend the winter in Iberia.

Formerly a common and widespread bird, this raptor was almost wiped out into extinction. By 1900, it was extinct in England and Scotland with only a remnant population surviving in central Wales. However, it was saved by one of the world’s longest running protection programs. It has been successfully reintroduced to England and Scotland and the bird has recolonized Northern Ireland and Wales.

Now, an estimate of 18,000 to 24,000 breeding pairs is suggested for this species in Europe, with possibly a few pairs in Morocco. Around ⅔ of the pairs breed in Germany, with other significant populations in France and Spain. However, the Spanish wintering population, which includes many of the German and French birds, has declined by 50% in 10 years, making UK red kites increasingly important on a global scale.

Physical Description:

The red kite has been described as ‘the most beautiful bird of prey in Britain’. Its plumage is a mixture of black, chestnut, grey, and reddish-brown. Its primary flight feathers are white with jet-black wing-tips and contrast with the dark secondary feathers. The wing-tips are strongly ‘fingered’. When flying, the red kite’s most notable feature is the distinctive, long, forked tail, which is used as a rudder in flight. The tail is grey and white, tipped with black.

bradley-redkite

Its pale grey head is streaked with black and it has golden eyes. The bright yellow legs and feet can be clearly seen when in flight. Its hooked beak is very sharp and designed for tearing meat.

Apart from the weight difference, the sexes are similar.

But, adults differ from juveniles in a number of characteristics. Adults are overall more deeply rufous, reddish-brown and have black breast-streaks, compared with the more washed out color of juveniles. Juveniles have a less deeply forked tail and have pale tips on its wings. These differences hold throughout most of the first year of the raptor’s life.

Diet:

The red kite is primarily a scavenger, feeding on a wide range of animal carrion, including sheep, rabbits, birds, and even waste from refuse dumps. In the past, they were a common sight in some towns and cities where they scavenged.

However, the red kites are also opportunistic hunters and are capable of killing small mammals, birds, and invertebrates. They have been found hunting mice, voles, shrews, young hares and rabbits, It is known that earthworms form an important part of the diet, particularly in spring. There have also been isolated reports of their attempting to take larger live prey.

A kite’s territory varies depending on the abundance of food. Where food is plentiful, large numbers of kites can be found living together.

Behavior:
red-kite-at-nest-with-chickAdult red kites are sedentary birds, occupying their breeding home range throughout the year. Each nesting territory can contain up to five alternative nest sites. Both birds build the nest, constructed out of dead twigs and lined with grass and sheep’s wool, on a main fork or a limb high in a tree, 39 to 65 ft (12 to 20 m) above the ground. Usually the nest is reused every year and will grow to a considerable size.

A couple of days prior to egg laying, the kites decorate the nest with rubbish and oddments they find nearby. Paper, rags, packets, carrier bags, even underwear and toys have been recorded. New material will continue to be added to the nest throughout the breeding season.

Females lay a clutch of one to three, occasionally four, eggs at three-day intervals in April. She, alone, will incubate the eggs for 31 to 32 days per egg. She will rarely leave the eggs unattended for more than a few minutes at a time. The male provides her food during incubation.

Once the eggs are hatched, the female will continue to stay at the nest the first two weeks to care for the young while the male provisions all food. After this period, the female will share in foraging, and the young are able to feed themselves from food placed in the nest.

From one week of age, aggression between siblings becomes apparent, but this is rarely the direct cause of death.

Fledging pred_kite_portraiteriod is variable, depending on the size of the brood and food availability. The chicks may start moving about the tree by 45 days of age, but rarely fledge before 48 to 50 days, sometimes not until 60 to 70 days. Despite this, parents will continue to care for them for another 15 to 20 days.

Once they reach juvenile stage, they may wander many miles from their birthplace before returning as adults to their home area. The young red kites will usually breed for the first time when they are two years old.

Conservation and Threats:

During the Middle Ages, the red kite was a valued scavenger in the UK for helping keep streets clean. In fact, it was protected by a royal decree; killing a kite attracted capital punishment. However, by the 16th century, a bounty was placed on its head and relentlessly persecuted as a ‘vermin’, like many other birds of prey at the time.

The persecution continued by gamekeepers, who wrongly accused them of taking game. As the kite became rarer, it became a target for taxidermists and egg collectors, whose actions hastened the species closer towards extinction. Consequently, the red kite became extinct in England in 1871 and in Scotland in 1879.

By 1903, when protection efforts started, only a handful of pairs were left in remove parts of central Wales. This small remnant population survived the persecution in the undisturbed upland valleys of mid-Wales. But despite extensive efforts, numbers remained extremely low.

The tightest genetic bottleneck came in the 1930s. DNA analysis revealed that the entire Welsh population was derived from a single female bird.

The population did not exceed 20 pairs until the 1950s, when it started to increase slowly, for several reasons. The inhabited area’s climatic conditions and poor food availability depressed breeding success and prevented the birds from expanding their range. Furthermore, up until about 1950 when protection measures were starting to take effect, illegal poisoning, egg collecting, and shooting of adults for taxidermy were severely affecting the population.

red_kite_map
Range of the Red Kite

Illegal poison baits, set for foxes or crows, are indiscriminate and is estimated to be the cause of at least half of our native Welsh kites death. It is also estimated that over a third of the released and wild bred Scottish kites were illegally poisoned between 1989 and 2001.

However, once the species had successfully spread to more productive land at lower altitudes, it became obvious that this was almost entirely due to poor habitat conditions. By the mid 1990s there were over 100 breeding pairs in Wales, and 350 to 400 pairs by 2003.

Due to the low rate of chick production, the Welsh population appeared to be unable to spread out to recolonize its former range. Instead, RSPB, Natural England, and Scottish Natural Heritage, with support and sponsorship from many other bodies, started a reintroduction program in 1989 to reestablish red kits in England and Scotland. By 1980, the red kite was one of the only three globally threatened species in the UK and was a high priority for conservation efforts.

In 1989, six Swedish birds were released at a site in north Scotland as well as four Swedish and one Welsh bird in Buckinghamshire. Altogether, 93 birds of Swedish and Spanish origin were released at each of the sites, with the last birds released in 1993 in Scotland and 1994 in England.

The first successful breeding was recorded at both sites in 1992. Two years later, kites reared in the wild also reared their young for the first time. Thus, successful breeding populations were established in both locations. Other introduction projects have also been successful in other sites in England and Scotland.

red-kite-dean-bricknell_974

In the UK, the raptor is listed in the Amber List of birds of medium conservation concern due to its stage of recovery from an extreme historic decline in numbers.

The red kite is also afforded the highest degree of legal protection under the Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. It states that it is an offence to take, injure, or kill a red kite or to take, damage, or destroy its nest, eggs, or young. It is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds close to their nest during breeding season. Violation can attract fines up to £5,000 per offence and/or a prison sentence of up to six months.

The Nature Conservation Act 2004 widens this protection and provides additional protection for the red kite in Scotland.

Interesting Facts:

  • The oldest known wild kite was 26 years old
  • As a monogamous species, they tend to pair for life.
  • The closest relative of red kites are black kites (Milvus migrans). Both species co-occur in countries like Spain and will occasionally hybridize.
  • Because of their ecological role as a scavenger, they help prevent the spread of disease by removing dead carcasses.
  • There is a rare white leucistic form accounting for approximately 1% of hatchlings in the Welsh population but it is a disadvantage, leading to many to die.
  • Its distinctive voice, an insistent, high pitched mewing, is not dissimilar to a shepherd’s whistling.

References + For More Reading:

The RSPB: Red Kite

Arkive: Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Red Kites

Red Kites

Birds of Britain: Red Kite

BBC: Red Kite

IUCN: Milvus milvus

ADW: Red Kite

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