For over 150 years, the United Kingdom had no red kites, save for a handful in the remote valleys of Wales. All had been persecuted out of existence as ‘vermin’, leaving our nation with the enviable label as being practically the only one with no kites on the wing.
Eventually, in the 1980s, action was taken to re-introduce this magnificent bird back to our skies and, starting with a project on the nearby Chilterns, birds from Spain and Sweden were raised in captivity and released into the wild. Success was instant with young being raised within two years of the first releases, in 1992. Over the following years, it has been possible to create similar schemes in half a dozen other English and Scottish regions, whilst the Welsh population has been able to self-restore its fortunes. Now some 2,000 pairs breed in these specific regions, but it will be many years before they become as common as they once were across the whole nation.
Kites are not strictly birds of prey, relying mainly on carrion for their food, or feasting on flying insects in season. They also follow the plough, alongside gulls, to seek out worms and leatherjackets.
What’s happening to red kites in Maidenhead?
Being so near to the original release scheme, residents of Maidenhead have been fortunate to see these birds in varying groups for many years. Being somewhat ‘crow-like’ in their behaviour it is not uncommon to see several dozen in one locality, and they also roost together like rooks. Now, many local woods, and even some gardens, hold nesting pairs and the young, once attaining adulthood after four years, are spreading out to pastures new.
Their cat-like calls regularly draw our attention to their presence overhead, although we need to be alert to the equally-increasing buzzards, of similar size and call, which are often circling amongst the kites.
Regrettably, even though yet only a fraction of their previous healthy population, there are already calls from certain quarters for kites to be culled!
What can I do?
Left to their own devices, and without persecution, red kites are very capable of extracting a living from our countryside.
Some folk have established regular feeding sites for the birds, and as a scavenger, they will always explore an interesting source of anything edible. But the birds require fur and calcium in their diet and the usual pre-cooked scraps etc are totally unsuitable for them, so experts have been dissuading us from doing this regularly.
But recording known nest sites and monitoring their behaviour is helpful to our growing understanding of the species, and deciding how to respond to campaigns to re-commence persecution is another form of supporting them.
Otherwise, it is simply a case of enjoying their presence around us.