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What is a Red Kite?

By Jennifer Voight
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A red kite is a small, agile, bird of prey known for its striking, rust-red body, gray-white head, and white patches on the underside of its wings. Also known by its scientific name, Milvus milvus, this raptor is part of the family Accipitridae, which also contains eagles, hawks, and vultures. The red kite lives mainly in Europe, although it may winter as far away as northwest Africa and the Middle East. The highest numbers of red kites are in Germany, France, and Spain. Although it was eradicated in most of Great Britain in the late 1800s, red kites are making a comeback due to reintroduction efforts that began in 1989.

Since the red kite’s body is small and light, it is good at soaring for long periods. Known in Great Britain for its beauty, the red kite is frequently seen soaring over the countryside, its silhouette marked by its signature forked tail that works like a rudder to help it change direction. The red kite’s wingspan is 5.5 feet (1.7 to 1.9 meters) and it weighs between 2 and 3 pounds (0.8 to 1.4 kilograms). Females tend to be slightly larger than males. The bird’s small body is quite weak, meaning that it mainly feeds on carrion, small mammals, and insects or earthworms.

The red kite tends to mate for life. Nests are made of sticks in the forks of trees and lined with wool and found objects. Sometimes, they nest in abandoned crow’s nests or build on them as a base. Females lay two to four eggs. Although females are the main incubators, males will sometimes relieve the females by sitting on the eggs while the female hunts for short time periods. Young red kites stay in the nest until they are seven weeks old, and are dependent upon the parents for food for another month. Young red kites start breeding at two to three years old.

Until the 1600s, red kites were widespread throughout Europe. Seventeenth century “vermin laws” encouraged the killing of red kites, since they were mistakenly believed to kill sheep and threaten the livelihood of farmers. Over the next several hundred years, red kite populations plummeted, becoming nearly wiped out in England and Scotland with only a few breeding pairs left in Wales.

Informal reintroduction efforts begun in the late 19th century. By the 1980s, populations were slowly growing as formal reintroduction efforts began. Although still considered rare, the red kite population continues to grow as concerned individuals and organizations rally to protect its uncertain future.

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