After 30 Years, Red Kites Soar in British Skies
by James J. S. Johnson, J.D., Th.D. | Jul. 31, 2020
The reintroduction of red kites to an area of outstanding natural beauty 30 years ago has been a "true conservation success story" …. Numbers of kites had declined over a 200-year period and by the 1980s they were one of only three globally-threatened species in the UK. Thirteen young birds were brought over from Spain and released in the Chiltern Hills [in southern England] in July 1990. They are now "thriving", with an estimated 1,800 UK breeding pairs.2
Including juvenile nestlings, as many as 10,000 red kites might be residing in various parts of England, Wales, and Scotland.3
Found in hilly regions, typically in landscape with areas of old deciduous wood mixed with open fields and meadows. In winter often gathers in flocks at dusk to roost together in clumps of trees or sections of forest. Hunts over open terrain and lives on small rodents, smaller birds, insects, etc., but also takes dead animals and refuse; steals prey from other birds, e.g., Rook and Carrion Crow.4
The red kite also hybridizes with the black kite in captivity and in the wild. So their genetic diversity includes several varieties spread over various parts of Europe.5 Kites are not new as a category of predatory bird. The exact relationships of various birds of prey—such as kites, falcons, hawks, eagles, and buzzards—continues to be an ongoing controversy among avian taxonomists.6
In any case, whether the recovering variety is called a species, subspecies, endemic breed, or some other phenotypic category, the population success results are encouraging.
When captive red kites were reintroduced to wild parts of England, the Chilterns Hills area was chosen as their new home. This is a semi-wooded chalk escarpment that blends with rolling hills, stretching more than 300 square miles within the River Thames drainage watershed.
The results have been something to celebrate, according to Natural England, which is the British government’s environmental stewardship agency.
Red kites can now be seen in most English counties with an estimated 10,000 birds in the UK, including 1,800 breeding pairs. Tony Juniper, chair of Natural England, said these "most majestic birds of prey" had been "persecuted to near-extinction", but the "pioneering reintroduction programme in the Chilterns stands out as a true conservation success story."2
Conservation success stories are not guaranteed, as shown by the history of extinct species and subspecies. Consider this list of no-longer-observable birds: passenger pigeon, great auk, Kona grosbeak, nine species of moa, dodo, ivory-billed woodpecker (subject to unverified reports in Arkansas), Grand Cayman thrush, Grand Cayman oriole, slender-billed grackle, San Benedicto rock wren, Norfolk Thrush, and the list goes on.7
Yet sometimes a near-extinction is reversed, and a preserved population is stewarded to the happy condition of a flourishing recovery. One example of this in America is the conservation comeback of the trumpeter swan.
Birdwatchers in Britain can celebrate the recovery of the elegant, fork-tailed, dignifiedly soaring red kite. Moreover, Christians can appreciate that every soaring red kite aloft in any of the British airways—of England, Scotland, and Wales—is a stand-alone exhibit of the Lord Jesus Christ’s care and creativity.
1. Staff writer. 30-year anniversary of landmark release of red kites in the Chiltern Hills. Natural England. Posted on gov.uk July 20, 2020, accessed July 21, 2020.
2. Staff writer. Red Kite 30-Year Chilterns Project a ‘Conservation Success’. BBC News. Posted on bbc.com July 20, 2020, accessed July 21, 2020.
3. In Scotland, the best places to see reintroduced Red Kites, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, are Argaty Farm Estate (near Stirling) and the Galloway Kite Trial near Castle Douglas (in Kirkcudbrightshire, including looping road itinerary of 24 miles, plus 16 miles of summer hiking trail within Galloway Forest Park). See Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, “Red Kite.” Posted on rspb.org, accessed July 20, 2020.
4. Jonsson, L. 1993. Birds of Europe, with North Africa and the Middle East. D. Christie, trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 122-123.
5. “Here, we analyzed the mitochondrial (CO1 and CytB) and nuclear (Myc) DNA loci of 184 M. milvus, 124 M. migr. migrans and 3 F1 hybrid individuals collected across central Europe. In agreement with previous studies, we found low heterozygosity in M. milvus regardless of locus. … We did not find mitochondrial DNA of one species in individuals with the plumage of the other species, except in F1 hybrids, which agrees with Haldane´s Rule. It remains to be investigated by genomic methods whether occasional gene flow occurs through the paternal line, as the examined Myc gene displayed only marginal divergence between M. milvus and M. migr. migrans. The central European population of M. milvus is clearly subject to free intraspecific gene flow, which has direct implications when considering the origin of individuals in M. milvus re-introduction programs.” Quoting Heneberg, P., M. Dolinay, H. Matušík, et al. 2016. Conservation of the Red Kite Milvus milvus (Aves: Accipitriformes) Is Not Affected by the Establishment of a Broad Hybrid Zone with the Black Kite Milvus migrans migrans in Central Europe. PLOS ONE. 11(7).
6. Kites (Hebrew: ’ayyâh) are mentioned in Deuteronomy 14:13, in association with other birds of prey, the glede (Hebrew: râ’âh) and the vulture (Hebrew: dayyâh). Kites are also mentioned in the ancient Miao people’s creation account, which bears many parallels to the creation account of Genesis. “In the earth He created the hawk and the kite; in the water created the lobster and fish; in the wilderness made He the tiger and bear…” Truax, E. A. 1991. Genesis according to the Miao People. Acts & Facts. 20(4).
7. However, when it comes to animal extinctions and extirpations, don’t be too quick to plan a funeral. See Johnson, J. J. S. 2020. Should We Grouse About Not Seeing Grouse? Creation Science Update. Posted on ICR.org July 7, 2020, accessed July 21, 2020.
8. Regarding the triumphant turnaround of North America’s Trumpeter Swan, see Johnson, J. J. S. 2020. Post-Coronavirus Comeback or Swan’s Song? Creation Science Update. Posted on ICR.org April 23, 2020, accessed July 21, 2020.
9. Revelation 4:11.
*Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Apologetics and Chief Academic Officer at the Institute for Creation Research.
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