Tuesday 23 January 2018

History restored: the Red Kite, by Leslie Wilson

Photo: Mike Prince from Bangalore, India
'The kites are gathering.' I don't know how many historical novels I have read those words in, and I can't find a reference now, which is annoying. But as a child, I knew that kites came to battlefields, and internalised those words. Perhaps the birds recognised the signs of incipient battle, which would mean food for them.

Nowadays, if I want to see a kite, all I have to do is go outside. There was one this morning, when we walked the dog; riding the wind, adjusting its wings with admirable skill. Riding on the rein of a wimpling wind, as Manley Hopkins wrote about the kestrel. It's been called the British vulture, though no vulture is as beautiful and elegant as the red kite. It's an enormous bird; when you see the odd kite that has landed and is sitting on the grass, you can see what large birds they are. Their wingspan can reach up to 195 centimetres, almost two metres.

You'd never think they were so big when you see them hanging in the sky. I love their display call, a confident, almost insolent whistle; Whee, whee-whee-whee! They look less confident, though, when they're being harried by a mob of crows. Crows seem to hate them, and probably they do raid crows' nests,but the crows raid theirs.

Robert Southey talks about kites squealing in the skies over the Lake District, where you won't hear them nowadays. Shakespeare says: 'When the kite builds, look to your lesser linen.' Kites haven't changed, then; they are fond of taking small cuddly toys and underwear to put in their nests. They were even known as the 'hat bird' because they were supposed to have removed hats from people's heads. Luckily, I don't wear a hat much in bird-nesting season.

They were apparently protected in England and Wales in medieval times, because they were useful scavengers; like vultures, they cleared up carrion and thrown-out meat that would otherwise rot or attract rats. Killing them even attracted the death penalty, according to a blogger. I'm sure I've seen references to kites hanging round the rubbish dumps on the outskirts of British cities. In Britain it was known in the past by a number of local names the most widespread being 'Glead' or 'Gleade' - a name derived from its gliding flight and 'Puttock'.

However, by the eighteenth century the kite was seen as a danger to game and even crops; it was relentlessly hunted, and it became vanishingly rare. Egg collectors were a further threat to the few remaining pairs, as they wanted to get the last eggs for their collections, which, frankly, makes me want to spit. 'On the authority of two good ornithologists' says my early 20th century The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs, 'we know that a pair nested in Devonshire in 1913, though unfortunately the eggs were taken.' Only a few birds managed to survive in Wales.

red kite (not captive) by Jason Thompson
It sounds hopeless; and yet very recent history tells a very different story, as inhabitants of the Home Counties and the south Midlands know. In the late 1980s, the red kite was considered to be one of the most threatened birds in Europe - and then the Chilterns reintroduction was launched by the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council. It began in 1989, shortly after we came to live on the lowest slopes of the Chilterns, and began to walk regularly at Christmas Common and Watlington Hill, where a wooden board went up; Red Kites in the Chilterns. You can still see it in the Watlington Hill car park, faded now, and rather superfluous. The few chicks who were brought from healthy populations of Spanish kites were kept in wooden pens in the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire beechwoods, and then released into the wild. The first pair bred successfully in 1991. In the early '90s, we still thought ourselves lucky if we saw a red kite at Watlington Hill. How different things are now! You can see them over urban Reading.

Can anyone tell me more about red kites in literature and history?

To see a map of current distribution of red kites in the British Isles, go to the RSPB, where you can also see a video of a kite flying, though unfortunately you don't hear the display whistle. What you can hear is all the little birds crying out in alarm when the kite stoops; it does have a bird of prey profile, after all, and they do take nestlings.


Penny Dolan said...

Harewood House, near where I live in North Yorkshire, was involved in their conservation, so we often see the birds wheeling in the sky overhead now.

Spade and Dagger said...

About 12 years ago, we took the children on a camping holiday to a Red Kite breeding farm in Wales. Within a few years, the Kites became a common feature over our home in SE England. Now, when I'm on my allotment I often see large groups of them casting shadows as they circle above me & can hear the sound of their wings as they swoop down onto some morsel of food.

Leslie Wilson said...

North Yorkshire too! That's fantastic news. You can't ever get used to them, can you, Spade and Dagger? Such a joy.

Anonymous said...

They are frequently seen here in North Buckinghamshire; Buzzards too.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

In the medieval period their bright yellow legs made them a literary reference to a coward. Being told he was as 'yellow as a kite' was something of an insult to a knight!

Unknown said...

We had fourteen Red Kites over the house on one afternoon last summer (we live next door to Highclere Castle). Usually two or three around these days, but fourteen?!!
Not complaining though - they are glorious.

Leslie Wilson said...

Someone was saying that they had seen a buzzard over the Thames at Sonning, recently. One would expect them to be present in North Buckinghamshire, as that is close to the original point of release. Fourteen is amazing. I am very interested in the 'yellow as a kite' insult. So presumably that's where all the references to cowards being 'yellow' originated. I'm sure I've heard the insult 'yellow-legged' as well as 'yellow-livered.'