The scavenging Milvus milvus

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The red kite is a popular conservation success story, says Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Jack Clarke, but the birds are still at risk from poisoning

Red kite images © Amy Lewis

The red kite has become an emblem of conservation success in the United Kingdom.
Once on the brink of extinction, these beautiful raptors and their impressive aerial displays have captivated the hearts of both conservationists and the public.
The red kite (Milvus milvus) is a medium-sized bird of prey known for its striking reddish-brown plumage, distinctive forked tail … and its impressive aerial acrobatics. In fact, it is that forked tail, combined with a wingspan of up to 195cm or more than six feet, which enables them to manoeuvre gracefully through the air, appearing to glide with exceptional agility.
Red kites are found in a variety of habitats – farmland, woodland, grassland and even urban areas. Although considered opportunistic hunters, occasionally hunting small mammals such as rabbits, red kites are primarily scavengers, feeding on carrion.
During April, females will lay a clutch of one to three eggs in a nest built by both parents. The nest appears untidy – sometimes built on top of old crows’ nests, and lined with sheep’s wool and random scraps of paper, plastic and cloth. Shakespeare referred to red kite nests in ‘The Winter’s Tale’: ‘When the kite builds, look to lesser linen.’ Though now considered a rural bird, red kites frequented the streets of Elizabethan London, feeding on scraps and stealing hung out washing for their nests.
During the incubation period and in the first few weeks after hatching, the male provides food for the nest. Chicks usually fledge after 50 to 60 days, and the parents typically care for them for another two to three weeks once they have left the nest.
Previously widespread throughout the UK, their population declined dramatically in the early 20th century due to both habitat loss and persecution from landowners. Thanks to successful conservation efforts and re-introduction programs, red kite numbers have made a remarkable recovery – there are now an estimated 4,400 breeding pairs throughout the UK. However, this now-protected species still faces many challenges.

Still a problem
Relying heavily on scavenging, red kites are particularly vulnerable to illegal poisoning – as reported previously in the BV. Birds also often fall victim to poison baits intended for foxes or crows, as well as rodenticide poisoning due to feeding on the dead rats they scavenge. Simple actions by landowners, such as refraining from using harmful pesticides, disposing of waste responsibly and avoiding disturbance near nesting sites, are all essential for the survival of this species in the UK.
A good place to spot soaring red kites in North Dorset is on the hills of Fontmell Down nature reserve (also worth a visit just for the stunning views over the Blackmore Vale). Listen for the red kites‘ mewing calls and marvel at the aerobatic theatrics of this marvellous bird..

To find out more about the wonderful wildlife found on our nature reserves in Dorset, visit dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk.

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