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Red Kite - Bird of Prey

Updated on September 19, 2014
Red Kite flying
Red Kite flying | Source

Learn about the Red Kite

I am very fortunate where I live because I see wonderful red kite birds of prey everyday, circling and swooping overhead. Red kites are a pleasure to watch and cut a distinctive shape in sky, with their russet red colour, huge wingspan and forked tail. They make a great sound too, it sounds so wild and quite out of place to hear when you're living in a town!

Only 20 years ago these elegant birds of prey were almost extinct in the UK and still remain endangered in much of Europe today. In 1989 there were just 54 red kite birds in Wales, and no other birds reported in Wales or England. Natural England and the RSPB launched a program to re-introduce the red kite back into the UK and brought red kite chicks from Spain to the Chilterns, in Oxfordshire. Today there are over 400 breeding pairs in the Chilterns, and other successful breeding populations in other parts of the UK bring the total to about 1000 red kites. This page looks at what makes the magnificent red kite bird of prey so special and where you can go in the UK to see them.

Portrait of a Red Kite
Portrait of a Red Kite | Source

Quick Facts about the Red Kite Bird - Also known as Milvus Milvus!

  • The Latin name for the Red Kite is Milvus Milvus, they belong to the Accipitridae family, the same as vultures, hawks and eagles.

  • Red kites are social birds, you will see them in great groups here in the Chilterns. Their flight is very graceful, gliding and swooping.

  • The length of the body is 24-26 inches, females are larger than males. The wingspan for the red kite is 5 - 5.5ft, pretty huge! Despite their large wingspan they only weigh 2-3lbs.

  • Their colour is russet red, with angled wings and a deeply forked tail. The undersides of their wings have white tips, which look very striking against the red feathers. They have a grey white head, with very sharp hooked beaks and bright yellow eyes. Young red kites have a more washed out colour than the adult kites, and their tails are less forked.

  • Red kite birds in the United Kingdom generally do not migrate, although the juvenile red kite is more likely to and then return back to the place it was born - a bit like a student taking a gap year! Red kites from colder countries, such as Sweden, are often seen in the UK during the winter months.

  • Red kites can live up to 26 years!

Nesting and Breeding Habits of the Red Kite

Red kites generally pair for life, but it is thought this is due to laziness not because they are attached to each other! They court by gliding to each other at speed and veering away at the last minute - amazing to watch!

There can be "divorces" when a pair of Kites do not breed successfully together and they will then find new mates.

Two nestlings of Red Kite
Two nestlings of Red Kite | Source

Red kites start to breed in their second year, laying 1-4 eggs in April time. The nest is usually built of twigs on the edge of woodland, high up in a tree and is lined with sheep's wool or grass.

They also like to collect oddities to line their nest, if you drop a glove on a walk - a red kite may think it is the perfect ornament for their nest!

Red kites are easily disturbed from their nests; even someone walking under the tree where they are nesting can cause them to abandon the nest. The eggs hatch in about 30-34 days. Both the male and female incubate the egg, but the female does most of the work. The chicks leave when they are about 8 weeks old.

The Red Kite Nest Watch

Red Kites at Rhayader feeding centre
Red Kites at Rhayader feeding centre | Source

What Do Red Kites Eat?

Red kites are scavengers rather than hunters and will feed off dead animals, such as a dead rabbits or sheep. As well as carrion they like to eat fish, worms, insects and chicks. Their talons and beak are not strong enough to pierce through the flesh of a dead animal, so they will wait until another predator has made in roads into the meat before they have their fill.

There is no need to artificially feed red kites in the Chilterns, but in other areas of the UK there is a need when there is a lack of food they can eat. The Gigrin Farm in Wales has an artificial feeding program, and you can go and visit them to watch this spectacle! It is possible to feed red kites yourself in your garden but you must adhere to strict guidelines. You must take care not to feed red kites processed or cooked meat, and you must be careful not to attract rats and annoy your neighbours! There is much debate as to whether people putting food out for red kites in their gardens is a good or bad idea, read more here about red kite bird feeding guidelines if you would like to know how to feed them.

Red Kite, Wings Spread
Red Kite, Wings Spread | Source
Tail-feather of a Red Kite (Milvus milvus) 325mm
Tail-feather of a Red Kite (Milvus milvus) 325mm | Source

History of the Red Kite

In the Medieval England the red kite bird of prey was a common site in our cities and towns, William Shakespeare even said that the London was a city of "red kites and crows"! Red Kites were not killed or hunted because they actually helped keep the streets clean from rotting carrion (such as rats) and food and were protected by Royal seal.

Then Henry VIII passed a "vermin law" in 1532, "ordeyned to dystroye Choughes, Crowes and Rookes". This was added to by Elizabeth I in 1566 - and was a list of all the wildlife that constitutes as "vermin" and a bounty was placed on the red kite's head.

This vermin law encouraged people to kill wildlife that was seen as a threat to agriculture and were paid to do so, how much they would get depended on the animal. The bounty offered was "one penney for the head of every Woodwall, Pye, Jaye, Raven or Kyte." As well as red kites there was a bounty for killing owls, badgers, kingfishers and even hedgehogs - who were thought to steal milk from cows at night! Millions of animals were killed due to this law.

Persecution of the red kite continued up until the 20th century, and the rarer the bird got the rarer the eggs were. Egg collecting was a popular hobby in Victorian England, and stealing the eggs of the red kite meant no chicks would hatch - further decreasing the red kite population.

Coupled with pesticide use, game hunting and loss of habitat as towns grew and spread that by the early 1900s there were just a few pairs of red kites in mid-Wales. Luckily local landowners had the foresight to try to set up an unofficial "Kite Committee" to protect this bird from extinction. Instead of a bounty to kill the red kite, as with the vermin law, landowners were paid a bounty to protect their nests.

By the 1920s the RSPB took over the initiative in Wales, but the bird population did not significantly rise until 1989 when Swedish red kites were released at sites in Wales, the Chilterns and Scotland. Successful breeding was recorded in 1992 and today each of these sites has a thriving population of red kites.There are now around 1000 breeding pairs in the UK. So it took 100 years to bring the red kite bird back from near extinction!

The Red Kite Aeroplane!

Where to See Red Kite Birds in the UK

show route and directions
A markerWild red kites are fed at Gilgrin Farm, 3pm in the summer and 2pm in the winter. -
Gigrin Farm, South Street, Rhayader, Powys, LD6 5BL
get directions

B markerWarburg Wildlife Reserve -
Warburg Nature Reserve Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, Henley-on-Thames,
get directions

C markerGrizedale Forest -
Grizedale Forest, Lake District National Park, Grizedale Forest Park, Ambleside, Cumbria LA22, UK
get directions

D markerRickmansworth -
Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, UK
get directions

E markerFineshade Wood -
Fineshade Woods, Corby, Northamptonshire NN17 3BA, UK
get directions

F markerLoch Ken -
Loch Ken, Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway DG7, UK
get directions

Are There Red Kites in Your Area?

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Yes, we have 2 birds in close area of my home, and third bird was seen by me few km away. they left in wintertime. they do this seldom in Poland; you can check at map: Poland, PiÅa town, and ca. 30 km north. Yesterday I saw another bird when I travelled to Wejcherowo (by the Baltic See). Our scientists say: in Poland we have now: 700-1500 pairs of this birds. They also was killed in the pass (XIX and XX century) almost to extinction, now they rebuild their position in ecosystem.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      I live in Canada, recently we heard a very large bird at nighttime stalking our cat. It was too dark so we could not see it. As far as I know, owls are the only birds that hunt at night, however, it did not sound like an owl. It had a very loud hawk like sound. We rescued the cat....but would really like to hear what they sound like so we could have something to compare it to.

    • JohnTannahill profile image

      John Tannahill 5 years ago from Somewhere in England

      Not yet, I live in Norfolk, but I always look for them when I'm driving through Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire. Apparently they do follow people.

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      golfspice 5 years ago

      I see them in West Oxfordshire on a regular basis, so they are now venturing beyond the Chilterns. As a large bird, they are easily spotted.

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      julieannbrady 5 years ago

      I'm not sure that I have seen a red kite in person ... have seen plenty of red-shouldered hawks which frequent the area in my backyard. I have actually seen one eating a snake!

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