The red kite was once one of our most widespread and familiar birds of prey. Kites have always had a close relationship with humans. In Tudor times the Red Kite was an extremely common species, present in many of our towns and cities, scavenging and killing rodents on rubbish heaps. The species was protected by Royal decree as a street cleaner.
Kites collect odd items discarded by humans which they use to line their nests. Shakespeare warned in The Winter’s Tale (Act 4, scene 3) “when the kite builds, look to lesser linen”. Bird conservationists report finding the furry head of a small toy horse with bridle, a blue and white woollen hat, part of a cardigan, a pair of tights, coloured string and paper, as well as socks, underwear, a small child’s glove and a teddy bear in the lining of kites’ nests along with the traditional nest-building materials of dead twigs, grass and sheep’s wool.
Their close relationship with humans has also been their downfall. Kites’ most important foods are rabbits, rats, small mammals, gamebirds, pigeons and corvids. But they prefer their food ready killed and are prone to accidental poisoning after eating poisoned rodents and to road accidents while attempting to eat road kill.
Kites became extinct in England and Scotland by the end of the 19th century mainly as a result of the activities of gamekeepers. Only a small number of pairs survived in remote parts of central Wales where they slowly increased to about 40 breeding pairs but showed no signs of spreading outside Wales. In the late 1980s, the red kite was one of only three British birds considered to be globally threatened and was therefore one of the highest priorities for conservation action. In 1989, a decision was taken by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to reintroduce kites to various parts of the UK.
Young red kites were collected from nests within high-density red kite populations in the provinces of Segovia and Salamanca in central Spain and released at sites in the Chilterns and the Black Isle, northern Scotland between 1989 and 1994.
Reintroduced kites do best when collected as nestlings of 4-6 weeks old. At this age they are fully-feathered and can feed themselves from chopped carcasses, this helps keep human contact to a minimum during feeding. Birds that spend time in captivity as nestlings become used to human contact and don’t manage so well when released. Since those first introductions, the kite population has increased to 300 – 400 breeding pairs in the south of England.
Red kites seem to be nesting around Ridge Hill and Shenley. You can see them patrolling over London Colney between 7 and 8 in the morning and again in the early afternoon.
Download this picture which contains the silhouettes of these birds help to identify the four comonest birds of prey you might see over London Colney.
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Red kites are much larger than kestrels or sparrowhawks and have a forked tail, easy to spot even when they are circling quite high in the sky. The front edges of their wings are curved. If they come lower you can see white patches on their underwings but the fork in the tail disappears when they spread their tail feathers to hover.
The kestrel hovers above possible feeding sites such as motorway verges at around telegraph pole height.
Buzzards are usually circling very high in the sky when seen over the village and have a characteristically rectangular silhouette.
Sparrow hawks are heavier and squarer in the wing than kestrels and are often seen as in the silhouette – going somewhere fast.