Possibly the most iconic bird of prey of the Chilterns, red kites are a marvel to see circling overhead in the Chiltern Hills
Red kites are one of Britain’s most magnificent and distinctive birds of prey, with fanned forked tails, a reddish-brown body and a distinctive mewing call. One of the best places to see them in the UK is the Chilterns.
Despite their current prevalence, red kites have survived a history of persecution and weathered huge ups and downs in public perception. They’ve gone from being protected by royal decree in the middle ages because their scavenging abilities helped keep the streets clean, to having a bounty on their head in the 16th century and being persecuted as ‘vermin’. Persecution intensified in Victorian times and they became extinct in the UK in 1871. By the 1980s, a small remnant population of red kites in Wales had become one of only three globally threatened species in the UK.
In the 1990s a major conservation project saw the successful reintroduction of red kites in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Between 1989 and 1994, kites from Spain were imported and released into the Chilterns by the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England). They’re now surviving and thriving and public support for these beautiful birds is strong. The red kites of the Chilterns are a great example of what a successful conservation project can achieve.
A red kite 101
- Latin name: Milvus milvus
- Size: 60 – 65cm long (Males are slightly smaller than females)
- Wingspan: 175 – 195cm
- Weight: 0.9 – 1.3kg
- Body – russet
- Head – grey / white
- Wings – red with white patches on underside
- Tail – grey / white tipped with black (deeply forked)
- Juveniles are duller in colour than adults
- Voice: Mew-like “weoo-weoo-weoo”, rapidly repeated
Kites can breed at 2 to 3 years old. In March, they begin to spend more time in suitable nesting areas. They will use nests abandoned by other birds, or will build their own in tall trees. Although easily disturbed by people, kites do not mind other pairs of kites nearby.
Their nests are made from large sticks and are normally lined with wool, which the birds collect along with other unusual items such as pieces of plastic and sometimes even items of clothing. By mid-April the female lays up to 4 white eggs, flecked with light brown, which usually hatch after 34 days. The young are ready to fly after 48-50 days, but still stay with their parents for a further 7-10 days.
Red kites eat mainly dead animals that they are able to find (carrion). They will also eat chicks, small mammals and invertebrates such as beetles and earthworms. They hunt by flying low over open country, using the forked tail to steer, twisting it like a rudder. Live prey is usually caught by surprise rather than speed, although kites sometimes make fast, twisting chases.
A popular misconception
It’s a longstanding misconception that red kites can take lambs – people saw them feeding on dead lambs and pheasants and mistakenly thought the kites had killed them.
Although they’re big birds they weigh less than a bag of sugar and they are too weak footed to catch anything other than a small rabbit.
Monitoring the population
In June each year, a number of young kites are fitted with coloured plastic wing tags, marked with an individual letter, number or symbol. A different colour is used each year, so the birds can be aged. This work is carried out by the Southern England Kite Group. A second colour on the tag indicates which part of the UK the bird is from (yellow for the Chilterns/southern England). There is a full list of all wing tag colours on the Southern England Kite Group’s website.
6 reasons not to feed red kites
Some people like to feed red kites meat in their gardens to attract large numbers – the birds make dramatic swoops to feed. While this is an impressive spectacle, The Chilterns Conservation Board discourages feeding red kites. It’s far better to enjoy them soaring high above our gardens or in their natural environment on a walk in the Chilterns hills. Here are some of the reasons why:
Red kites fighting over a piece of squirrel caught in the wild (All photos in this section by Steve Gozdz)
1. Feeding encourages red kites to become bolder
Feeding encourages red kites to fly too close for comfort. They have sharp claws and a wingspan of around six foot. If the birds become a nuisance this could change public support for the welfare of these birds. We don’t want public perception to move us back down the road towards the persecution of red kites – part of their worrying history.
2. Feeding encourages concentrated numbers of kites in one area
Feeding encourages concentrated numbers of kites in one area. This discourages songbirds and ground nesting birds from feeding and successfully bringing up their young.
It is acknowledged that feeding has helped the local re-introduced kite population to increase more rapidly than it might otherwise have done and has kept the population at a level that chicks can be re-located to other parts of the country. However, now that the kite population is thriving, it is feared that providing too much additional food can prevent the population from spreading naturally and cause the birds to cluster in large numbers where food is offered.
3. The scraps of uncooked and cooked meat that people feed red kites don’t present a balanced, healthy diet.
Red kites feed predominantly on carrion – dead animals, though they can be opportunistic and kill small mammals. They will usually eat most parts of the animal including the bones, which gives them the nutrients they need.
4. Red kites can drop scraps of meat
Red kites can drop scraps of meat onto neighbouring gardens and properties which is a health risk and attracts rats and vermin.
5. Feeding discourages red kites from expanding their range
Feeding discourages red kites from expanding their range and looking for new breeding territories and sources of food. This disrupts their natural population spread.
6. Dependence on feeding can adversely affect the welfare of the birds
Feeding for prolonged periods of time from one location, especially from a young age, may make the birds dependent one one food source and stop them from learning to find their own sources of food in the wild.
More red kite FAQs
Why were red kites from the Welsh population not used for the re-introductions in England and Scotland?
The Welsh population was derived from a very small number of individual females. They were therefore genetically very similar. Introduction of genetic variety from European populations was thought to be better for the species.
The population in Wales had not risen to a sufficient level to cope with the removal of significant numbers of chicks
What effect has the re-introduction of red kites had on the other wildlife of the Chilterns?
Red kites mainly scavenge on dead animals, so they have had little impact on the populations of the species they eat. They will occasionally take live prey, such as rats, mice, voles and fledgeling birds, but these make up a very small proportion of their diet. Although they do not habitually take larger prey, isolated reports of red kites attempting to take prey such as rabbits, squirrels, chickens and partrigdes have been received.
There is no evidence to suggest that the national decline in garden and farmland birds is linked to the presence of red kites.
There is circumstantial evidence that buzzard populations have risen in the Chilterns since the re-introduction of red kites, but there is no proof of a direct correlation between the two species.
How long do red kites live?
In the wild, it’s common for kites to live well into their teens, and they can live for up to 25 – 30 years.
How do you tell males and females apart?
Coloration is identical in both sexes. Males are slightly smaller than females but there is wide overlap. Females have proportionately longer and broader wings. Males tend to have a more deeply notched tail, which they twist and flex more than the females.
It is difficult to tell the sexes apart unless you have two to compare directly.
Do red kites mate for life?
Red kites usually take the same mate year after year, but ‘divorces’ aren’t unheard of! They will often also re-use the same nest year after year.
The association between the pairs is looser during the winter than in the breeding season. Their courtship displays in February and March re-establish their pair bond.
What’s their courtship behaviour like?
The pair perform high circling displays, particularly in the early part of the day. They will often fly one behind the other, with deep, exaggerated wing-beats, followed by a vigourous chase. They may pass close together, twisting apart at the last moment, and will sometimes pass food between them. They often perform these flights above the wood they are nesting in, calling to each other and finally dropping into the canopy. Talon locking (observed in other bird of prey species is) not commonly reported.
What is the biggest threat to red kites?
Red kites have no natural predators, so their biggest threats come from the actions of humans.
A major threat is still the risk of poisoning. Persecution of red kites is much reduced nowadays, but it does occasionally still happen. Red kites have perished as a result of eating illegally poisoned baits left out for other animals (e.g. foxes), they have also been known to die after picking up the corpses of legally poisoned rodents. A leaflet about rat poisons and the threats to birds of prey is available by calling Natural England’s Enquiry Service on 0845 600 3078.
They are also very susceptible to disturbance when they are nesting so should be left alone during the breeding season.