‘The Red Kites of Reading’

Just how important is supplementary food to the success of the Red Kite reintroduction?

Arron Watson

The Red Kite is quite simply the best example of conservation in action in the UK. We want to know how important the provision of supplementary food by thousands of householders has been in making this happen.

The small ‘eagle-looking’ bird that passes over the skies in Berkshire, more commonly known as the Red Kite (Milvus milvus) has become increasingly described as “the Red Kite of Reading” in many senses. As a regular visitor to the University of Reading campus I have counted the number of consecutive days I have seen a Red Kite gliding, manoeuvring and being chased by crows and magpies; sometimes there can be a whole month where I will not go a day without seeing their shadow drift over, and when I don’t I am wondering why I haven’t seen their beauty today. This so called passion with watching Red Kite’s has always made me keen to investigate their regular visitations more, which led me to read about the history of the Kite’s and how they have survived national persecution.

At the end of the 19th Century, Red Kite numbers were virtually extinct and for many years none were seen within the UK at all. Many game keepers had persecuted the Kite’s and what was a regular visitor to many countryside locations across the UK was no more. In 1989, Red Kites were reintroduced through a national program which established new populations in the United Kingdom and there was a particular focus on the Chiltern Hills in South East England and in Scotland. By 1992, their reintroduction was deemed successful after records of breeding pairs were documented and since this success, populations have steadily grown and numbers in the Chiltern Hills have seen a large increase.

Reading has become one of the most common places to see Red Kite’s, but why? Many people would assume that their visiting is something normal and would assume that it’s just in their natural behaviour to visit a town but nest elsewhere – this in many ways could be a correct assumption. They are known to scavenge and travel to areas where there may be food in urban areas and, in the past, many statements have been made including William Shakespeare who, in a Winter’s Tale, spoke of them scavenging in London.Red kite

The reason their visitation was presumed unusual was because of the amount of numbers there was at one time within Reading. It was Dr Melanie Orros and Professor Mark Fellowes who decided to investigate this further, and a paper was published in 2014 “Widespread supplementary feeding in domestic gardens explains the return of reintroduced Red Kites (Milvus milvus) to an urban area”. This would prove be the key finding that would explain why there are so many Red Kites in Reading, with it being concluded that there was enough food to support 320 Red Kites at any one day that was being provided.

It was this research that would have Professor Fellowes’ research team thinking about what food people may be feeding the Red Kite’s and how much it has been contributing to their daily diet. Within Orros and Fellowes’ research, the results to their large survey of questionnaires to the general public in Reading concluded that 74% of homeowners fed Red Kite’s chicken and others fed them pork, beef, and lamb also in large proportions. This information would create a database of information to allow Professor Fellowes and his research team to plan further research in to what ratio of wild to garden fed food is being fed to Red Kites within many people’s gardens. I aim to help solve this mystery in only six weeks, but how? In my next blog, I will explain how this mystery could be achieved in only six weeks.