The red kite is a medium-large raptor with a characteristic long, deeply forked tail that is red above and pale below. A wingspan of almost 2 metres means it is easy to distinguish as it soars overhead, especially considering the beautiful underwing plumage: rufous inner wings against large white patches that contrast sharply against the black-tipped primaries. Its head is pale grey with golden orbed eyes and a black-tipped yellow bill. Sexes appear similar, but females will be larger and heavier than males. Juveniles have a buff breast and belly, and white-tipped greater coverts.
Red kites are quite commonly silent, though they will emit a thin, buzzard-like mewing.
Red kites have a varied diet, consisting primarily of small mammals including voles, mice, rats, moles, shrews and young hares and rabbits. They are also renowned scavengers and will feed on carrion such as dead sheep and birds. In spring, red kites will eat plenty of earthworms.
Red kites are typically associated with wooded valleys near areas of farmland or open country. They are still most common in Wales, when winter is the best time to visit, but can be seen all year round in the UK. There are feeding stations near Rhayader and Ponterwyd in Wales. In England, they are common in the Chilterns, where RSPB Hazeley Heath is located. In Scotland, the best place to see them is at Agarty and along the Galloway Kite Trail.
The red kite often flies with its wings flexed and its tail constantly twisting to angle against thermals which it rides with a leisurely grace. To take advantage of thermals, the bird will rise late after waiting for the sun to warm the land. Outside of the breeding season the birds are gregarious and can even be witnessed in flocks of up to 100 strong.
Red kites will generally begin breeding at 2 or 3 years of age. Courtship will begin in March, and once established, pairs will be monogamous. Nests are a wood and mud platform usually built in the fork of a large hardwood tree. The pair will cooperate to build the nest, although the male will usually be sent to collect most of the material. The nest will be lined with sheep’s wool or fur prior to egg laying. Females will lay a clutch of 1-4 eggs that are white with red spotting. The incubation period runs for around 32 days and will mainly be done by the female, although the male will take a turn every now and then. The male will also do most of the hunting and bring food to the female, who then feeds the young. The young will fly independently of the nest after 7-8 weeks but will still depend on feeding by the parents for several weeks.
The maximum recorded age for a red kite is 25 years, although the average lifespan is around 4 years.
The indigenous Welsh population of birds are generally resident, though some juveniles that feel brave enough will head for England in the winter, returning home in spring. Birds that have been reintroduced to Britain from Europe, where populations are migratory, still retain their instinct to migrate and will therefore head south in winter. Continental birds will also visit the UK on occasion.
In the past, the red kite’s preference for carrion led to its demise as farmers would poison carcasses, not knowing what would eat them. Back in Shakespeare’s time they were so common they were considered as pests. The invention of firearms added to the bird’s problems and by the end of the nineteenth century there were only about 12 pairs left in Britain. These clung on in their Welsh stronghold until, at the beginning of the twentieth century, concerted efforts were made to bring them back from the brink. Nowadays red kites are once again a familiar sight in the skies over most parts of Britain and there are estimated to be 4,600 breeding pairs. Red kites are listed under Schedule 1 of The Wildlife and Countryside Act.