The Red Kite bird (Milvus milvus) is a medium to large bird of prey and one of three species within the ‘Milvus‘ genus. This genus itself exists within the ‘Accipitridae‘ family. This is one of the three families of birds within the ‘Accipitriformes‘ order which contains most of the diurnal raptors such as eagles, vultures, buzzards and harriers.
There are two subspecies of Red Kite, – Milvus milvus milvus – which is the most common across their range, and Milvus milvus fasciicauda – which is native to the Cape Verde Islands.
The Red Kite is endemic to the Western Palearctic region. It is a rare species which is resident in the milder parts of its range, however, birds from northern and central Europe winter further south and west. It is known for its distinctive forked tail and reddish-brown feathers.
Red Kite Characteristics
In maturity, the Red Kite usually grows to between 61 – 72 centimetres (24 – 28 inches) long with a 175 – 200 centimetres (69 – 79 inches) wingspan.
It is an elegant, soaring bird with long wings held at a dihedral (upward angle from horizontal in a fixed-wing aircraft or bird wing from root to tip), and long forked tail twisting as it changes direction. Their body, upper tail and wing coverts are tinged with red. The white primary flight feathers contrast with the black wing tips and dark secondary feathers. Male and female are similar, however, juveniles have a brownish yellow breast and belly.
The Red Kite bird call is a thin piping, similar to but less mewling than the Common Buzzard. At signs of danger, a mother Red Kite will signal the young who will ‘play dead’ quite convincingly, to the extent that a fox will believe them to be dead and leave them, thinking it can return to eat them later.
Adult Red Kite birds differ from juvenile Red Kite birds in a number of characteristics: Adults are overall more deeply brownish red, compared with the more washed out color of juveniles. Adults have black breast-streaks whereas on juveniles these are pale. Juveniles have a less deeply-forked tail, with a dark sub terminal band. Juveniles have pale tips to all of the greater-coverts (secondary and primary) on both the upper and under wings, forming a long narrow pale line; adults have pale fringes to upperwing secondary-coverts only. These differences hold throughout most of the first year of a birds life.
Red Kite Behaviour
The Red Kite is renowned for its masterful flight, making use of its distinctive forked tail to navigate gracefully through the air. It exhibits a range of aerial manoeuvres, diving, circling, and soaring with expert grace and style, showcasing its agility and exceptional skill.
They communicate with a distinctive and recognisable high-pitched, whistle-like call which resonates through the skies as it glides. It’s hard to describe the call in words, but you can hear an example here.
The Red Kite is known for its keen sense of sight and sound, which it uses to detect prey and navigate its environment. They are a very attractive bird to watch in flight and on the hunt.
Diet of Red Kite Birds
Red Kites are meat eaters and they are not too picky about the species they eat. They consume fish – particularly those that have washed up ashore. Small mammals such as rabbits, voles and stoats are favourites too, but they would struggle to grab anything larger than a hare. They might also eat insects such as earthworms and small invertebrates, seasonally.
They are carnivorous scavengers too though and are particularly fond of the carrion of larger animals such as sheep or pigs, or anything found dead on roads. It is an opportunistic feeder, adapting its diet based on availability. It plays a crucial role in the ecosystem by scavenging, helping in the natural disposal and decomposition of dead animals, as well as helping to control populations of rodents and insects.
Location & Habitat
Red Kites have a preference for temperate climates and live in a range of habitats including grasslands, wetlands, forests, and shrublands. They can thrive in various ecological settings. When it comes to nesting, Red Kites exhibit a preference for tree forks, anywhere up to 50 feet above the ground. They sometimes utilize nests abandoned by other birds like buzzards, but they are also competent builders with both partners contributing.
They are found predominantly in much of Europe and Asia, in countries including the UK, Ireland, France, Finland, Germany, Montenegro, Spain and Iran. They can also be found in some small areas of northern Africa, particularly around Morocco, though the last breeding pair was recorded in 2004, and those spotted today are on a ‘flying visit’. Most of Africa’s Red Kite populations are now extinct.
In the United Kingdom, the breeding population eventually became restricted to a handful of pairs in Wales. However, recently, the Welsh population has been supplemented by re-introductions in England and Scotland. In a second stage of reintroduction in 1995 and 1996, further birds were brought over from Germany to populate the areas of Dumfries and Galloway and the Derwent Valley.
One of the best places to see Red Kite birds in the UK is Gigrin Farm near Rhayader, Mid Wales, where hundreds are fed by the local farmer as a tourist attraction.
According to a report by the Welsh Kite Trust, the UK is the only country in which the red kite population is increasing.
Reproductive Process of Red Kite
Spring marks the start of breeding season for Red Kites, with females laying one to three eggs (four on rare occasions) typically around mid-April. In preparation for this, both the male and female gather resources to build the nest and they may use the same nest across several years.
The eggs are cream-colored adorned with light brown spots and undergo an incubation period of 31 to 32 days. Once hatched, the new chicks develop quickly. Within 7 to 8 weeks they are developed enough to leave the nest at start fledging. They will stay close to home though for a few weeks more, still getting some help from their parents while they get to grips with the skills and social behaviours they need for independent life.
Lifespan of Red Kite
The Red Kite, reaches sexual maturity around their second year usually, but some are quicker, around the year mark. In ideal conditions with safe nesting and a good food supply, these birds can live to a good, long age of up to 25 years. The oldest recorded individual reached the exceptional age of 28, but lifespans close to this are very rare.
Predators of Red Kite
While adult Red Kites are a formidable foe, in the sky and perched in their tree, juveniles and eggs are an easier target for some opportunistic predators. Larger birds pose significant threats, particularly crows, magpies and other birds of prey that are known to primarily target the vulnerable eggs or young ones. In some parts of their range, snakes may also be a threat to young chicks or eggs in a nest.
Humans also inadvertently contribute to their plight through the use of poisons intended for rodents, leading to the tragic secondary poisoning of these birds.
Threats to Red Kite
The Red Kite faces severe threats from illegal poison baits and from modern rodenticides. As Red Kites are scavengers, when they eat the carrion of dead rats and mice, they ingest these poisons causing fatal harm.
Such indiscriminate poisoning has led to the demise of at least half of the native Welsh kites. The survival of juvenile birds, especially in Scotland, is alarmingly low due to poisoning, significantly impacting the growth of the kite population in the region.
Conservation Status and Population of Red Kite
Once listed as one of only three globally threatened species in the UK, the Red Kite has been the focus of extensive conservation efforts. Thanks to relentless conservation initiatives, reintroduction programs, and protective measures, the Red Kite population is on the rise overall. It is now categorized as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, in all assessments – Global, European and Mediterranean. The latest assessments were carried out in 2020 and 2021.
While it did historically have a greater range, and populations have become locally extinct over the last century, the future for this species, at least for now, is stable and secure.
5 Fun Red Kite Facts for Kids:
- The Red Kite boasts a wingspan ranging from 69 to 77 inches, it is a big raptor!
- These birds can reach flying speeds of up to 100 mph, making them one of the fastest birds in their habitat.
- Many cultures see the Red Kite as a symbol of hope and good luck.
- Red Kites contribute to environmental well-being by consuming carrion and controlling the populations of rodents and insects.
- The forked tail of the Red Kite is not just a unique feature but also aids in swift and sharp turns in the air – like avian Mavericks.