Red Kite Milvus milvus
Once common and widespread in England, this spectacular bird was lost as a breeding species by the end of the 1800s
as a result of human persecution. It clung on in Wales but, even there, had been reduced to just seven pairs as
recently as 1957. However, thanks to a reintroduction programme that began in 1989, it has now made a spectacular
comeback. Take hope, then, Derby County: anything is possible! I can't resist adding here that it was English Nature,
my former employer (now transmuted, in the way that gold is turned to dross, into Natural England) which was largely
responsible for this.
Breeding populations are established in four areas with large populations in the Rockingham Forest area of
Northamptonshire and in Bucks and Oxfordshire. Smaller, but increasing, numbers of pairs are present in Yorkshire -
to the north of Leeds - and in the Derwent Valley, to the west of Newcastle. Anyone travelling along the M 40 is
likely to see at least a dozen kites around the motorway. (This is a regular journey for my wife and me and our
record for this stretch is now 35!). This area of the Chilterns was the centre of the first phase of the re-introduction
programme and now supports more than 300 pairs. It is the likeliest origin of Kingston’s first (if it is the first)
kite and the most probable source for the birds that will almost certainly colonise Sussex over the next decades.
The red kite is a highly adaptable bird and can make the most of feeding opportunities on the edges of built up areas
as well as in the open countryside. In the Chilterns, kites have become regular visitors to gardens with many
householders now putting out food to attract them. It must be a remarkable sight to watching these huge birds diving
down to snatch up scraps of food from the confines of a small garden, usually carrying it away to a secure feeding
perch or even consuming it on the wing! This kite is primarily a carrion eater. It is therefore in competition with
other scavengers, such as crows and magpies, which it occasionally takes as live prey.
In mediaeval times, the red kite was common in densely populated urban areas. Indeed, it was one of the first birds in
England to be given legal protection because of the valuable role it played in helping to keep the streets free from
animal waste; a pair bred in Gray’s Inn, Holborn, in 1777 and it is at least conceivable that it could at some stage
once again become resident in some modern urban centres. It is already a regular visitor to towns such as Reading and
Oxford and is now occasionally seen drifting over central London. The red kite is relatively tolerant of routine human
disturbance and sometimes nests in lines of trees close to busy roads or even in large rural gardens with mature trees.
Perhaps the odd pair could settle to breed in well-wooded town parks in the future. Lack of food sources in urban areas
could be a limiting factor although some of our city streets appear scarcely cleaner now than they were in the 1700s.
True, we don’t commonly have piles of offal or dead dogs and cats there these days, but the front garden of our town
house in Peterborough on a Sunday morning had enough discarded chips, hamburgers, curries and who knows what else to
keep a not-very-fussy kite fed for several days – one of the reasons we weren’t too sorry to leave!
This kite has a habit of collecting all manner of odd materials for incorporating into its nest and was once regularly
cursed for stealing washing left hanging out to dry. In recent years its more unusual nesting material has been known to
include socks, underwear, crisp packets, plastic supermarket bags, teddy bears and even a tennis ball. Any kites intending
to settle in Kingston may, thankfully, find tennis balls slightly easier to come by than plastic bags.
In time, this splendid bird – even larger than a buzzard and with a wonderful haunting cry - looks set to become an
increasingly common sight over large areas of England: a very welcome sign that human attitudes towards raptors (at
least amongst the majority of people) have changed for the better.