The Red Kite is rusty red with dark streaks and a pale head. They have a noticeably forked tail, long narrow wings which usually held flat (unlike a Buzzard’s v-shape) that have pale patches at the end before the black wing tips. On their back, there is a faint diagonal pale stripe across the top of inner wing. The tail though is the giveaway.
The Red Kite’s call is more of a whistle compared to a Buzzard’s mewing call. It can almost sound like a builder’s wolf whistle, a “peeooo-weooo-weooo”. The Buzzard in contrast calls a single “meeooo” which is repeated after a short break.
They hunt by circling high overhead until they spot something to eat. Their eyesight, like all raptors, is phenomenally better than ours! They are top predators and have a varied diet, eating both live and dead prey. Their bill is not strong enough to penetrate tough skin, so they are unable to take any large prey. When catching live prey, the kites will dive from the air (or drop from a post) feet first to catch them. Their diet consists of some small mammals (rats, voles, mice, young rabbits), birds (crows, pigeons), earthworms, amphibians (like frogs), but mainly carrion (already dead animals) like road kill, dead sheep and game birds. Red kites were common in medieval London, even being referenced several times in Shakespeare’s plays. For many years, gamekeepers and farmers, seeing kites eating their animals, assumed the kites had killed them and nearly persecuted the birds to extinction.
Nesting starts in late March. A large nest made of twigs in the fork of a tall tree in a wood or copse. The male brings the twigs while the female neatly arranges them. The female often decorates the nest with rags, plastic bags, and even underwear pinched from washing lines! Ladies are so much better at home making than men. A pair of Red Kites may reuse the same well decorated nest of several years. Both birds incubate the eggs, though the female more than the male. The 1-3 eggs are laid at 3-day intervals and hatch after 31 days (a long time). The youngsters only fly after a further 50-70 days and are fed by the parents for another 20 days. With taking such a long time, they raise only one brood in each year.
The 2,500 pairs of Red Kites are largely resident. The young birds can wander widely in spring to find their own patch. Their Latin name is ‘milvus milvus’ which means ‘red kite red kite’. Not very original for something so magnificent.