On the track of the Red Kite

At first sight the name „Red Kite“ for Milvus milvus seems strange to non-English speakers. What has a bird to do with a flying kite in autumn? Actually a lot if you watch the Red Kite using the thermal, how it glides through the air. Even if one cannot recognize the rusty brown feathers against the light, you always identify the bird species by its fork tail while coasting in the sky. A little bigger than a common buzzard the Red Kite looks for prey on its glider flight. If the kite finds a field mouse, a mole or thrushes and blackbirds it kills its prey with strong strokes of its beak in the next tree it comes across.

In general the Red Kite is quite flexible in regards to options on nutrition: In spring lots of beetles and earthworms are on its menu, close to water it likes to hunt fish. Even carrion is an acceptable meal. In some areas the Red Kite became scarcer where dumps were closed. In winter when hunting prey gets more difficult the Red Kite robs Black Kites or crows. If it cannot wrangle their prey directly, it harasses them long enough until they regurgitate the food and provides it to the Red Kite.

In many areas of Central Europe the sight of the „red dragon“ may be enjoyed from early spring until autumn.

Gender equality rules when it comes to colors of the feathers among the Red Kites. Only during the breeding period there rules a classical distribution of roles: The female kite stays at the nest and the male supplies her. She is more or less alone responsible for the clutch of around three eggs in the size of chicken eggs. During the roughly 32 days of brooding the male takes over only in exceptional cases for a short time. As the small ones hatched they need still seven to eight weeks until they can leave the nest.

The Red Kites are very relaxed parents: Between their hunting flights they enjoy long periods of rest even if the young animals demand food very stridently. Most of the times the parents live monogamously during one brooding season, sometimes even relationships of several years occur. They return often to their nesting place and even the young prefer areas close to their birthplace for breeding.

Around half of the 24,000 breeding couples in the world breed in Germany. In contrast to the smaller conspecific, the Black Kite, which exists nearly everywhere in the world, the rarer species of the Red Kite only occurs in Europe. In October first the female and one or two weeks later the male Red Kite migrate to Spain or Portugal. Satellite transmitters showed that the kites traveled 10,000 km in three quarters of a year, around 150 km per day on the way back to the nesting place.

In theory Red Kites may become very old. There are non-captive Kites that are even up to 30 years old. But in fact most of the time they are no older than seven years as they face several risks on their migration route and are the second most frequent victim of windmills after the common buzzard. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that publishes the Red List of endangered species graded the Red Kite as “nearly threatened” in order to point out the necessity to protect their habitat and migration routes.

Michaela Sulz

Michaela Sulz is a passionate birder and blogger for ZEISS Nature Blog.