Red kites are a bird of prey that you will see frequently soaring in circles over Leeds.
They are large reddish-brown birds, with white and black angled wings and a deep V within the tail. They were royal bird used for hunting and scavenging during the 1400s, but by the 1600s the bird was considered a pest and was hunted itself. As red kites became rarer, they were a target of egg collectors and taxidermists during the 1800s. The red kite became extinct in England in 1871 and in Scotland in 1879.
However, now they are a reintroduction success story, with more than 4600 breeding pairs across the UK. They were reintroduced from the late 1980s in Scotland and during the 1990s in England and Wales.
Why do we see lots of them across Leeds? A small number of breeding pairs were released on the Harewood House estate in 1999. They nested and fledged the following year, which was much quicker than anyone expected. Since then, the population has grown each year and the birds can now be seen across the city.
Leeds Museums and Galleries have several red kites within the collection, both as bird skins and taxidermy mounts, like the one shown here. These birds all either died of natural causes, or were found dead having got caught in overhead power lines.
How big are they? They usually have a wing-span of 175-195cm, and a length of 60-66cm. They weigh 800-1300g.
What do they eat? They eat carrion (dead animals and birds) and worms, but they will occasionally hunt live prey of small mammals.
Where do they live? They generally live in woodland and farmland areas, where there are sources of small carrion to eat. However, they are increasingly seen over the suburbs and city centre of Leeds, showing how species adapt to different habitats over time. They stay around their nesting sites all year round.
Why do they fly in circles? They are very energy efficient birds, who use their large wing-span to glide and soar on air currents. This is why we see them circling around, and going up and down in the sky, as they catch the next air current.
- If you were to reintroduce an extinct animal, bird or insect to your local area, what would it be and why? What conditions and habitats would you need to create to help the animal survive and thrive? What support would you need? Whose support would you need? What impact would the reintroduction have on other species in the area? Are you introducing predator or prey?
- What do you think might happen to the red kites in Leeds if all the local woodland was destroyed? Can you relate this to other experiences across the globe, such as de-forestation of the rainforests?
- Use the beak and talons of the red kite to discuss adaptations for feeding and habitat.
- Working scientifically: Can you do a red kite count in the skies above your school or house? Record the date, season, weather and time alongside the number of birds. Does this change according to any of the factors?
- Measure out the size of a red kite, and the distances it can see carrion. Compare this to human eyesight and relative size for adaptations.
- Art and Design: Can you use colour mixing to recreate the red kite plumage? Use feathers (from other birds) for mark making and painting. Why do you think the red kite is coloured in this way?