Has the red kite become a pest?

Here in Britain the red kite (Milvus milvus) was hunted almost to extinction. In the 16th century it was classed as vermin, supposedly a threat to agriculture. A few centuries later, along came gamekeepers whose job was (and still is) to breed and protect birds and mammals for people to shoot.

By the end of the 18th century hardly any breeding red kites remained. As a child in the 1970s I dreamed of seeing a real live red kite one day. But in recent decades, they’ve been reintroduced at sites in Wales, Scotland and England. Now I often see them from my kitchen window! You can watch film of beautiful red kites flying here. You can read more about their history here.

So this is a story of success, reintroducing a species that had almost gone. Here’s some data about the rising red kite populations in Britain. But has this success gone too far?

Some people think that the red kite is now too common, disturbing people and pets, killing poultry. For example, Andrew Ffrench at the Oxford Mail tells us that red kites ‘are becoming a pest’. The problem? People feed the kites. So there are now more kites than their natural food supply could maintain. They’re mostly scavengers, eating carrion, but they’ll take live prey too. Mice, voles and squirrels, as well as earthworms and small birds. The BBC says that red kites have become so bold that they take food from people’s hands.

Do red kites kill poultry? It’s easy to find anecdotal evidence that sometimes they do. But I’ve seen no science about how often it happens. How much of a threat this is. If you find science about it, please tell me.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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13 Responses to Has the red kite become a pest?

  1. The story of the Canada Goose in North America is quite similar. So-called “Cans” are so common now, that birdwatchers dismiss them outright. Good for the Red Kites!

  2. beeseeker says:

    I believe that, because residents feed the kites – because they are so spectacular – that their populations are unnaturally dense.
    Maybe this has something to do with the vermin tag?

    • argylesock says:

      Yes, all the commentators I read agree that there’s a problem with too much artificial feeding. If there were less of that, there’d be fewer red kites and they’d be less attracted to human dwellings. I think this is an awkward issue, politically – could be career suicide for any politician who dared to speak against the gorgeous red kite.

      What do you mean about the ‘vermin’ tag? The article I linked to mentions the 16th century Vermin Acts. Attitudes have changed since that time, to some of the ‘vermin’ species but not to others.

  3. Spectacular, impressive, awesome, amazing… in the world of wildlife re-introductions it probably doesn’t do to be dull, drab and aesthetically inconsequential.
    I’ve a feeling that the success of the red kite centre in mid Wales, particularly as a tourist attraction, had a significant influence on the decision to reintroduce red kites elsewhere. It seems bizarre to me, from a conservation viewpoint, to reintroduce a species, ostensibly for environmental reasons at a density where supplementary feeding is required. Good for you for raising another emotive and contentious issue and encouraging debate..

    • argylesock says:

      Thank you! Yes I’m tackling a few of the emotive issues on this blog amn’t I? GM, badger culling, red kites… I like what you’ve said here about what drove the red kite reintroduction. How do you think it will develop now?

  4. Tony says:

    Blimey, I haven’t caught up with your blog for a few days and was shocked to hear of this particular story. Nevertheless, good for you for bringing up this wildlife conservation conundrum.* The fact is, as and when populations explode i.e. Red Kite abundance, (I await the Atlas!) there will ultimately be much concern among the land owners and those who steward our lands. Personally, what is more fascinating, is how should Springwatch/Countryfile/Farming Today and suchlike approach these wildlife conservation issues*

    *are you friends with this particular conservation monster? –
    http://www.eminem.com/videos/monster-ft-rihanna

    • argylesock says:

      No I’m not, as it happens. Eminem’s made some great music but I don’t know what he’s done for conservation.

      Do you watch Springwatch etc? I’m out of the habit of doing that, but one of my links in this post is to one of those series’ websites. If they mention the red kite again, do please tell me about it.

  5. Tony says:

    Ha ha, I did post that somewhat late in the evening. Nevertheless, the lyrics ring true about current conservation policy IMHO and it was moreover the Rihanna chorus I was commenting on. I’ll save you from the rapping for now. Yes, I watch Springwatch et. al rather than the rest of the dross on our media, as I am extremely passionate about learning more about our Natural World. The shame factor with it, is that everything is often presented as things are rosy in our countryside, when they’re clearly not. Having said that, the final Autumnwatch episode was rather special considering they covered issues such as not all folk possess a liking for Foxes, Barn Owls will adapt to taking birds such as Starlings when rodent food is short etc. More fact-facing from these programs and the wider media can only be good in my opinion.

    Take care Sam.

    Tony

    • argylesock says:

      I’m glad you’re watching these programmes. I stopped, largely because of the point you make – too much of the rose-tinted specs. Also because it seems to me that whenever a topic gets interesting in one of those programmes, the scriptwriters turn away.

  6. y_ddraenog_goch_2 says:

    I’d say that perhaps people shouldn’t feed them any more in places where those people don’t want them to be, but I certainly don’t see them as a pest. IMHO they are beautiful birds which humans have helped to recover from the brink of extinction in the UK, and they should now be left alone to live their lives in peace.

    It’s unfortunate about the chicks, but I see that as Nature in action. I’d hazard a guess that a great deal more poultry is taken by other birds of prey than by Red Kites.

    • argylesock says:

      I agree that the red kites should be left in peace. Perhaps in due course, the novelty of feeding them will wear off and kite populations will stabilise at the carrying capacity of their land. I imagine a future in which feeding red kites will seem weird, like feeding wild rats. Do people still feed city pigeons? Certainly there are ppopulations of feral cats maintained by volunteers feeding them.

      Thank you for not saying who told me that phe finds these birds a pest. Since my WP blog is public, I avoid naming people here except public figures.

      The conversation which led me to blog about red kites was a surprise. You may be right about other birds of prey taking poultry, but I’ll need to ask for info. Certainly other predators are a problem.

      • y_ddraenog_goch_2 says:

        I think you are right about the novelty being likely to wear off and the population of Red Kites to stabilise. I hope that is what will happen.

        Yes, some people still feed the feral Rock Doves which live in our cities and towns – I see it happen when I visit two towns each about five miles from me, and I’m pretty sure it still continues in most big cities and towns.

        I remember a small population of feral cats at a small grass-runwayed aerodrome which were fed by some of the volunteer staff; I understand that the cats were useful in controlling the rodent population there.

        When I comment in any blog, public or friends-only, I avoid using names unless I know the blog-owner has no objection to them being used.

        My speculation that other birds of prey might take more poultry than Red Kites do was based on the fact that other avian predators are at present much more common than Red Kites, and also that Red Kites primarily feed on carrion, and secondarily on live prey. If I remember correctly, even Magpies will sometimes take small birds.

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