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Red Kites

Red Kites

The Rev. M. A. Mathew writes, that he has proof of the Kite having nested quite recently in Devonshire, but even at the beginning of the century it was a rare bird in the South of the County…I have a vague recollection of the species having (in my school-boy days, at Buckfastleigh near Ashburton in Devonshire) regularly bred in a large woodland called King’s Wood, not far from Holne Chase on Dartmoor” In his annual summary, Mr. Rodd wrote more decidedly: “No hawk was better known in the large woodland districts of the Central part of Devon, when I was a boy at Buckfastleigh, than the ‘Fork-tailed Kit,’ as it was commonly called. Mr. Rodd appears to have been born in 1810, so that his experience of the Kite in Devon would refer to years between 1820 and 1830.”, Pidsley, pp.76 – 77.

Country people in Devonshire usually call Buzzards and, indeed, all large Hawks, “Kitts” or “Keets,” and we believe that, if the genuine “Fork-tailed Kite” was ever plentiful in this county, it must have been a very long time ago… The rapid and almost complete extermination of the Kite in the British Islands since the introduction of percussion guns and of more general game-preserving, while many others of the Hawk family, although equally persecuted, still contrive to hold their own in more or less numbers, seems to indicate that the Kite is a foolish, blundering bird, less capable of taking care of itself and of avoiding its enemies ; and by its frequent forays upon the poultry-yard it more often came in the way of danger.”, D’Urban pp. 155 – 156.

It is affirmed that Kites were common in this district forty or fifty years ago. At present they are so rare, that I have never seen one alive; and but one, a very beautiful specimen in the collection of the late W. Baron.” Bray. pp 345 -346.

As a small aside, Mrs Bray also relates how her husband, sometime in the early 1800s, kept a Red Kite in his father’s garden. The bird’s wings had been clipped and it seems neglected, as a consequence the Kite found it hard to fly, but it seemed to enjoy mounting the garden walls and then flinging itself at anyone passing below. Unfortunately one day it made the mistake of dive-bombing Mr. Bray and in her words; “would have probably struck him in the face had he not prevented it by knocking it down with his stick.”, p346.

As can be seen from the above extracts from the 1800s the Red Kite has been considered to be a rare bird on Dartmoor and the major reason for this has been human persecution. In 1953 St. Ledger Gordon notes the following: “The now very rare Kite, which last bred on Dartmoor at Holne Chase, has been seen on several occasions within the last few years, but unhappily the chances of it being able to re-establish itself here seem very remote.“. p.93. Fairly recently in it’s publication called; “The Nature of Dartmoor A Biodiversity Profile,” the Dartmoor National Park Authority noted that for the Red Kite it was considered to be an example; “of species thought to have become extinct within the Dartmoor Natural Area during the 20th century Persecution… probably last bred in Devon at Dartmeet.” DNPA. p.18. Today the Red Kite has an amber category status which is explained – HERE. But this is not the first time that the bird has been given protection because during the medieval period it received royal protection by decree. The reason being that due to its natural scavenging talents it did an excellent job of cleaning the filthy urban streets from a variety of unspeakable things. Due to this it was commonly known as the ‘Shite Hawk’ which although a very apt descriptive is a trifle unfortunate. As sanitation improved from the seventeen century onwards the Kite’s food source began to dry up and as a consequence the bird moved out of the urban environment into rural areas in search of food. Here it did in fact find various food sources which unfortunately included farms and game estates, it was then that the persecution began and their numbers began to decline. As their numbers declined the Kite became trophies for both egg and actual bird collectors which further added to their demise.

In recent years the Red Kite has been seen on the moor but these sighting were classed as; “a rather rare passage migrant on Dartmoor, not occurring every year.“, Smaldon. p.50. It was in 1997 when I spotted my first Red Kite on Dartmoor and that was whilst mooching around the flanks of Ter Hill. To this day I can vividly remember the encounter, at first I did not believe what I was seeing but after a good minute of watching the bird I could clearly see that distinct forked tail. As you can see from the photograph below it was fairly close but sadly the camera technology I owned at the time produced poor results. Now leap forward sixteen years to a blustery May day on the eastern lower slopes of Sittaford Tor. Having visited Statts House we were walking back to Fernworthy when my friend Rhys spotted a Red Kite flying up and down the valley between the tor and the plantation. Again it was only a fairly brief sighting but there was just enough time to get some photographs that were clear enough to identify the fact that we had seen a Red Kite. Having seen the bird I was interested to know if this was a rare sighting or not so I did some on-line research for Devonshire bird sightings. As you can see from the map below, for a rare bird there have been quite a few recorded sighting this year. It is also interesting to note how dispersed there are, now whether or not these are the same few birds that are regularly being seen I know not.

In 1989 the RSPB and what is now called Natural England introduced a release scheme in an effort to re-introduce Red Kites to several areas of England and Scotland. In order to identify these released birds various coloured, large wing tags where fixed to them which are highly visible. What I can say about the Red Kites I have seen is that none of them had wing tags which surely must indicate that they are local born and bred. Smaldon does however recount the story of one Red Kite spotted in the Walkham Valley in 2000 that was sporting a yellow tag. Amazingly enough this correlates to a bird that was released in Scotland which meant it has travelled a huge distance to get to Dartmoor.

The best type of Landscape to spot Red Kites is in and around the edges of the moor and in wooded valleys than merge into agricultural land. It is also interesting to note that the number of recorded sightings is greatest in the October and November period.

Could it therefore be that for once we have a bird that is increasing in numbers on Dartmoor as opposed to declining? I don’t know if any current research is being done on this topic with regards to numbers, nesting sites etc. If it isn’t then that seems rather a shame because the Red Kite is one of Dartmoor’s spectacular denizens and I’m sure it has more appeal than some of the other species that are currently being encouraged.

I purposefully have not gone into the specific facts about the Red Kite as much more proficient sites on the InterWeb already do that such as the RSPB – see link opposite.

Red Kites Red Kites Red Kites Red Kites Red Kites Red Kites

Red Kites

Finally, there is an old belief that Kites will steal small articles of linen off the washing line to take back to its nest to serve as a comfortable lining for its chicks – so hang onto your smalls!

           Bray, A. E. 1838 Traditions, Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of Devonshire. London: John Murray.

Dartmoor National Park Authority ???? The Nature of Dartmoor – A Biodiversity Profile. Online Source pdf.

D’Urban, W. S. M & Rev. M. A. Mathew. 1891. The Birds of Devon. London: R. H. Porter.

Smaldon, R. 2005. The Birds of Dartmoor. Falmouth: Isabelline Books.

Pidsley, W. E. H. 1891. The Birds of Devonshire. Exeter: J. G. Commin.

St. Ledger Gordon, D. 1953. Dartmoor. London: Collins.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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