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Red Kite

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

By Rhodri Phillipps

While it can be hard for the best of us to tell our Merlin’s from our Hobby’s as they dart across the sky, there is no mistaking the distinguished silhouette of the red kite. The rusty coloured bird of prey is often seen gliding through the skies of the UK in search of its next meal. An efficient hunter scanning open fields from afar, detecting the slightest movement before it dives quickly using its fanned tail for stability, pulling up seconds before the ground. But despite their size and wingspan of almost 6 feet, a typical meal for the birds include small rodents, chicks and even earthworms. Although you are still unlikely to see one turning the turf of your garden with the robins. They are an opportunist hunter and scavenger, with roadkill now frequently on the menu for the once feared predator.

Red kites are also one of the few birds of prey to live in groups, at least while food is abundant. This can easily be seen at a number of feeding stations set up around the UK. Given the opportunity to watch it is easy to see that within these groups exhibits a hierarchy of sorts. Older birds, sometimes missing feathers feed first, while the juveniles and sub-adults patiently wait eager for their turn. Before long these fluffy and off coloured individuals get the go ahead from their elders and stoop down to grab the food provided.

The species has become an almost emblematic species for wildlife conservation in Wales, but that almost wasn’t the case.

The fantailed bird of prey was officially extinct in England and Scotland by 1871, with just a handful of individuals surviving in mid Wales.

But legal protection and a number of reintroductions in the 80’s helped the species spread across much of their historic range. Currently there are now close to 2,000 pairs in the UK, representing 7 - 10% of the entire world’s breeding population of red kites. As such, the red kite has become one of the best conservation success stories in Britain, but it so easily could have gone differently.

Conservation work for the species is still ongoing despite their recovery. While persecution is much lower than in the 19th century, it is still a contributing factor to their slow recovery. However habitat loss is now the main cause for concern, with nesting sites in broadleaf woodland declining in England and Wales. But continuing work to monitor the species and its population levels is helping to ensure we are aware of the health of the UK’s population. In June each year a number of young birds are fitted with coloured id tags, with the colour indicating the age of the individual. This helps us learn about the survival rates and population structure of the species, an indicator of how successful they are.

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