Red Kites: Reflections on a recovered species

By RRP Director John Howe

Conservation and education are key components of the Raptor Resource Project’s mission and I’ve been reminded of both this past week during a family trip to England and Wales. I was accompanied by RRP president and tour guide John Dingley, my brother George Howe and his son Ryan, and later in the trip by Tim Jacobson. For me, the visit was twofold – a chance to learn about our family roots in mid-Wales and attend the Gold Movie Awards in London. The trip, or should I say adventure for those of us visiting Great Britain for the first time, provided a chance to discover and reflect on our family’s ancestry and to represent RRP at the London award ceremony for the movie Decoding the Driftless. The conservation success story of the US peregrine falcon population is featured in the award-winning film and we were very excited to be a part of the award ceremony. Only 5 years ago, the inclusion of that story in a full-length documentary about the Midwest Driftless Area was a thought and a dream. I remember George and Tim discussing the possibility with Bob Anderson – RRP’s founder and director at the time – and RRP board member and wildlife cinematographer Neil Rettig. Now that thought and dream was reality.

One of our first stops in Wales was to Gigrin Farm in Rhyader, home of the famous red kite feeding station. The red kite is a beautifully colored and elegant looking bird of prey. It is colored chestnut red with gray head feathers and distinctive white patches under its wings. Our tour guide for the week was none other than Wales native John Dingley. In conversations about our trip to Gigrin Farm, I remember he claimed, “the bird is nearly all feathers!”, which refers to its small body weight of 2-3 pounds and a wingspan of 6½ feet. The kite’s weight-to-wingspan ratio makes it a very agile flier with the ability to hover and soar with little effort.

Red Kites feeding. More video here:

The red kite has made a remarkable comeback in the UK and its decline and restoration has many parallels with that of the peregrine falcon in the US. Like the peregrine, it was revered in the middle ages. As falconry declined and birds of prey fell out of favor, it was treated as vermin and a threat to game and the livelihood of gamekeepers and farmers. By the mid-1800s the bird had become the target of bounty hunters, taxidermists, and thieves who sold their eggs to collectors. As a result, the formerly prized red kite was completely extirpated from England and Scotland by the late 1870’s, and only a few kites were left in Wales by 1930. Could the bird be saved?

Conservation efforts began in 1903. The first Kite Committee put some nest protections into place and began educational outreach efforts to convince people that kites did not harm sheep or small game, while nest protection initiatives during the 1950s and 1960s succeeded in reducing egg theft. By the early 1970s, the Welsh population of red kites was on the rebound. But species recovery was slow, and the kite seemed unlikely to spread out of Wales on its own. In 1986, the Royal Society for Bird Protection and the Nature Conservancy Council began discussing how to reintroduce the red kite to its historic habitat in England and Scotland. Much like releases of peregrine falcons that occurred in cities across the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, they procured kites and released them in England and Scotland. As of my visit to Gigrin Farm in early January of 2020, there were over 1,600 breeding pairs across the UK, half of which are outside of Wales. The conservation work that began in 1903 – the world’s longest continuous conservation program – had saved the red kite.

While crossing the rolling landscape of Mid-Wales peppered with grazing sheep, the outline of the red kite across the sky became a familiar sight. It was a good feeling to know that we all can help right some of the ecological disasters that have been brought on by human activity. We all can play a part – big or small. The recovery of both the red kite and the peregrine falcon depended on loving dedication and good will towards these beautiful raptors. The awareness and action of conservationists will be a precious and valued commodity as we move through the 21st century on our changing landscape and world.