Driving through the leafy lanes of Oxfordshire at the weekend, we suddenly saw a large bird hanging in the air a few feet above us. It swooped low towards a piece of roadkill on the verge and then, aware of our car, flew just as quickly back up towards the sky.
It was a privileged encounter with nature – startling, exciting, surprising. We had a clear view of the bird’s markings – brown under its wings, leading to a pale grey towards its feathered wingtips. But what gave this bird’s identity away immediately was its forked tail. This was a red kite.
The red kite is one of British conservation’s success stories. The birds were common in Shakespeare’s time. In Coriolanus, the eponymous hero says that he lives in ‘the city of kites and crows’. We can assume that Shakespeare here is describing his own London. Two centuries later, John Clare describes the kite (puddock) in his poem The Fens:
Ah, could I see a spinney nigh,
A puddock riding in the sky
Above the oaks with easy sail
On stilly wings and forked tail
However, by the start of the twentieth century, gamekeepers, egg-hunters and taxidermists had reduced UK kite numbers to a few pairs in Wales. Thankfully, a successful programme of reintroduction of birds from Sweden and Spain, started in 1989, has seen red kite numbers soar. There are now thought to be 2,700 breeding pairs across the country. In 2006, red kites were back in Shakespeare’s London after an absence of 150 years.
These birds are primarily scavengers. The idea that they prey on game, which led to their downfall, is incorrect. As scavengers, they find the roadkill on motorways to be a useful source of food, and there is a thriving population in the Chilterns by the M40, where they can be seen floating on the thermals above the road.
John Clare saw his puddock in the fens. I haven’t yet seen any red kites in East Anglia, but I’m hoping it’s just a matter of time.