Red Kites

I went down to visit my brother in Cheltenham yesterday. It served as a reminder of how genuinely lovely the English countryside can look. At this time of year, when it’s too often grey and dismal, it’s easy to start wondering why anyone able to leave still lives at this latitude. But yesterday was the best kind of clear bright autumn/winter morning and the south of England was looking its best. It’s not the most spectacular landscape in the world, but with the autumn leaves and gently rolling fields it was a pleasure to drive through.

The pleasure was enhanced because the motorway passes through the Chilterns, a pleasant enough area which now has a special treat: red kites. Not bits of cloth on string, but the big, broad-winged russety bird of prey with a long forked tail. When I started birding, red kites were one of our rarest birds – at one stage they were reduced to 45 pairs – and to see them you needed to make a special trip to remote wooded valleys in central Wales. Even then, their exact nest sites were a closely guarded secret.

The Welsh kite population has been growing; there are a few hundred pairs now. But there has also been a large reintroduction program in England and Scotland. The first place it started was the Chilterns, and we must have seen at least a dozen kites as we drove through. I just can’t think of anything more cheering than the idea of the red kite becoming a common bird again. Not only is it probably our most beautiful raptor, it has a special glamour for British birders my age. I guess if it becomes common enough it might be devalued a bit, but even if it loses its special status as a rarity, it’ll never lose its beauty.

picture © Foto John

And the kite once was genuinely common: it scavenged for rubbish (alongside ravens!) in the streets of Tudor London, just as its relative the black kite is a scavenger today in Istanbul and Delhi. There are a load of references to kites (sometimes as ‘puttock’) in Shakespeare, including this immortal bit from The Winter’s Tale:

“My traffic is sheets; when the kite builds, look to lesser linen”

which refers to the kite’s habit of stealing bits of fabric to use as nest-buiding material. Apparently, with the new growth of kite numbers, a new generation of people are learning the hard way that if you have kites nesting nearby, your underwear may not be safe on the washing line.

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