Red kites: Close to extinction but now thriving

A Red kite in flight. Picture: Ian Rutherford
A Red kite in flight. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WHEN the Scottish Birdwatchers’ Conference meets in Edinburgh today there will be great concern expressed about the worrying drop in numbers of wading birds in this country, with curlew numbers down by 55 per cent and lapwings down by 48 per cent.

But elsewhere, there is better news for ornithologists. In particular, the reintroduction of the red kite – which was close to extinction in the UK – has turned into a significant success story, with recent figures showing that Scotland was host to an impressive 214 nesting pairs last year.

A typical red kite nest. Picture: RSPB

A typical red kite nest. Picture: RSPB

The progress made since their reintroduction in 1989 has delighted bird watchers, but as the kites have spread across the country, they have attracted their fair share of controversy – sometimes causing concern among farmers and being labelled as a nuisance, or even a threat to livestock, particularly pheasants. The onset of spring and the arrival of the lambing season heightens such fears.

But according to the RSPB, there is no need to worry. “Red kites do not hunt mobile prey, but prefer to feed on meat scraps, earthworms, carcasses, frogs and the occasional mouse or rat,” says Adam McClure of the RSPB.

“These birds of prey lack the power, strength and speed to take anything larger than a young rabbit, never mind a lamb.

“If red kites are new in an area, local farmers may not be used to seeing this large bird in their skies, but there is no need to worry during lambing season. Appearances may be deceiving, but the red kite is actually a bit of a wimp. Kites can be lazy too – if they can get a meal without killing, so much the better”.

There is evidence that the RSPB message is getting through. Some Scottish farmers are so comfortable with the birds that they have established feeding stations on their sheep farms, which have become popular visitor attractions.

Feeding stations exist on the Galloway Red Kite Trail and at Argaty Red Kites in Doune. The Galloway Kite Trail has attracted an estimated £33m in visitor spending since its launch in 2003, which also demonstrates the contribution that these scavenger birds make to Scottish Tourism.

The very first Scottish reintroduction was on the Black Isle, north of Inverness, in 1989, when around 100 birds, from Scandinavia, were released. In 2007 30 birds were released on the outskirts of Aberdeen, and the last kites were released in Aberdeen in 2009, taking the total there to 101 birds. The figure of 214 nesting pairs across the country last year was a pleasing result for those involved in the project.

Jenny Lennon, red kite project officer for RSPB Scotland, says: “Last summer was a record-breaking year for the Aberdeen red kites. Nineteen pairs set up territories and laid eggs. For the first time, one of our birds was recorded breeding in Dumfries and Galloway with a local male.

“Monitoring red kite nests is always interesting given their predisposition to decorate their nest with unusual items. This summer we have found a soft toy racoon, mouse trap, toy lemur, tennis balls, toy dog, and a toy rat. This is all in addition to the usual gloves, wool and socks.

“Our local primary schools choose names for the red kite chicks. We’ve had around 75 chicks named by schools and the names are weird and wonderful to say the least – my personal favourites are Echt Happy Chappie, Elmo, Professor Feathers and Kingswells Bullet.”

Despite the birds being protected, occasionally people take the law into their own hands. In the north of Scotland, illegal poisoning was hampering the reintroduction effort for a time. Then in February this year, a red kite in Shropshire was shot, suffering numerous bullet wounds. Remarkably, the bird survived and is in the care of the RSPCA.

The reintroduction of the red kite in the late 1980s was not restricted to Scotland. South of the Border, the Chilterns breeding programme began at around the same time as the Scottish one.

The first chicks introduced into the Chiltern Hills area – in central southern England – were brought from Spain, and chicks from the Chilterns have since been entered into the Scottish breeding programme. In 1989 five red kites were released into the Chilterns. As in Scotland, this programme has been a huge success – by 2002 139 pairs were breeding in the area; now there are over 700 breeding pairs.

Some locals feed the birds, arguing that the birds need the food in the cold winter months. The result is a cluster of red kites in residential areas where they are not necessarily welcome. There have been headlines about children being injured by the kites, and although this may not be a serious threat, it is true that the birds have become bold, swooping into gardens for food.

Their diet consists normally of small mammals, roadkill and other dead animals,. In Buckinghamshire, they get chips, bones, old sandwiches and anything else that the local restaurants don’t want any more.

There are also instances of red kites taking clothes from washing lines. Socks, scarves, vests and other items end up hanging from nests, often built in tall trees in residential areas.

But according to Nigel Snell, who helped to reintroduce red kites into the Chilterns 20 years ago, people have mainly tolerated and even welcome these unusual visitors.

“In the cold wintertime it’s super that people feed the red kites, because all their prey is frozen solid so they can’t eat it,” says Snell. “This is the ideal time to feed them. The rest of the year it doesn’t really matter.

“Twenty years ago we didn’t have any red kites, we didn’t have any buzzards and we didn’t have any ravens. Now, because the red kites have come back, poisoning has stopped, so we have buzzards and ravens too. People don’t persecute the birds any more and I think it’s rather nice having them all back where they belong. They were here 120 years ago and should never have been hunted to extinction in the first place.”

Facts and Figures

• Red kites have been brought back from the threat of extinction in the British Isles, and now occupy parts of Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland.

• Their wingspan stretches almost two metres and they typically weigh about 1kg (2-3lb).

• They start to breed at the age of two or three, and their eggs are usually laid in March, although first-time breeders might not lay until April.

• They typically lay between one and four eggs, each laid three days apart, and the incubation period is 31 to 35 days.

• When they hatch, the chicks can be quite aggressive and the larger chicks will peck at the younger chicks. This sometimes results in the youngest chicks dying, either from starvation, or from pecking.

• Red kites can live for up to 20 years.