Posted: Wednesday 25 September 2013
by Richard Jones
During the late 20th century, the red kite become a byword for catastrophic raptor decline in England.
I grew up on the South Downs and the Sussex Weald, and although I knew a kestrel when I saw one hovering in the wind, or a peregrine screaming its bullet-like stoop descent from the cliffs at Beachy Head, I never saw a red kite. During the late 20th century, this bird had become a byword for catastrophic raptor decline in England.
Point the finger as you like — DDT accumulation in the food chain, untoward game-keeper persecution, general destruction of the countryside, and abandonment of old-fashioned rural practices, kites were virtually extinct in England. One of my 1960s guides suggests there were but 10 pairs, nesting in Wales.
Many of the rather sullen reports of this time recalled how the kite used to be a common sight, even in central London, up until the late 17th century. As well as scavenging (Shakespeare calls them carrion kites in Henry VI, Part 2), the obviously human-habituated birds would also swoop down to snatch food from the careless hands of the unwary as they munched their sandwiches along the Thames wharves. Although Samuel Pepys never writes of red kites (it’s been suggested they were too commonplace and mundane to mention), he calls his cousin, Pegg Kite, “carrion”, which may be a witty play on words, or may be that he’s just being rude about her.
Now, though, red kites are recovering; re-introduced and hopefully less persecuted, they are spreading through central England (and parts of Scotland). I’m no birder, but even I got a thrill when I first saw one, in Berkshire, a few years ago. I was immediately struck by the two key identification features everyone had been going on about — the ruddy brown body and the deeply forked tail. It was instantly recognisable, even for an entomologist.
I’ve not seen one in the garden yet, although it can only be a matter of time. One has been spotted in New Cross. It was being mobbed by crows. Well, my crows are ready and waiting. Bring it on.
Thanks to RSPB IMAGES for kind permission to use the beautiful image of the red kite.
26/09/2013 at 10:41
In the early 1990s I worked on a private estate in Stokenchurch where Red Kites had been released on Christmas common by the land owner,we would see them every day circling over head,being a towny they came as a complete surprise. Oldchippy.
26/09/2013 at 11:50
I had a client in Mid Wales 20 years ago and I would make an excuse to go and visit so I could stand in her garden with a cuppa and watch the Red Kites wheeling about below us
26/09/2013 at 21:39
I once had the pleasure of visiting Wormsley Park, the home of Sir Paul Getty, and saw red kites flying overhead there for the first time. Sir Paul was instrumental in their reintroduction to southern England around 1989.
26/09/2013 at 22:40
Common buzzard are also becoming common again. I've had a nesting pair not far from my house and the mewing, soaring and thermal-riding of the parents & offspring are a pleasant sound and sight.
Regarding mobbing of avian predators by smaller birds - it happens a lot. I once witnessed a goshawk being chased by several vocal blackbirds and have seen a pair of spars (sparrowhawks) being mobbed by feeding sand martins. Spars are quick and maneouverable in places where there is tree cover, but are fair game for the even quicker martins when caught out in the open. The spars retreated to their speciality habitat. Crows also mob buzzard, even though the buzzard isn't necessarily a direct predator. However, buzzard (and kite) are direct competition. Seeing a buzzard getting fed up with the mobbing is another good sight - a quick 'flip' upside-down, talons skyward and the crow in pursuit beats a hasty retreat.
Rumour from a year or two back was that kite were spreading toward this part of the country. I've not seen one yet, but fingers crossed.
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27/09/2013 at 06:17
I often see buzzards,wheeling around , riding the thermals. But it is the mewing sound that attracts attention first.