Killing kites with kindness
Wednesday 13 December 2006
Red kites are being killed with kindness by well-meaning bird lovers feeding them potentially harmful food.
Having already been saved from extinction once, these beautiful birds of prey are being put at risk in some parts of the UK, warn conservationists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
A reintroduction programme set up in 1989 which translocated birds from Spain and Sweden to the UK has had marked success, with more nesting birds appearing each year. But a study carried out in the Chilterns this year has revealed up to one in 10 people surveyed are feeding red kites in their gardens, and well over half of these are leaving out cooked leftover food scraps, which have little or no nutritional value for the kites. This can make red kites over-dependent on food handouts and deprive them of the opportunity to feed naturally. Food dependency in areas with high concentrations of kites is also slowing the rate of spread to new areas of Britain.
Rat and mouse poison is also posing a threat to red kites’ survival, with ZSL vets who monitor wild kite health identifying poisoning as a significant cause of death. Kites that eat dead or dying rodents killed with anticoagulant pesticides face being poisoned themselves. This threat includes deliberate illegal poisoning of kites to prevent them from preying on game birds.
The potential threat caused by inappropriate feeding has prompted conservationists at ZSL and the Chilterns Conservation Board (CCB) to contact hundreds of home and landowners in the Chilterns – where there are a large number of red kites – to give advice. ZSL, which runs London Zoo and Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, has even produced a leaflet packed with information to send out to homes visited by red kites.
ZSL’s Native Species Conservation Programme Manager Emily Brennan said: “Many people like to feed red kites as they want to help conserve them and enjoy seeing these beautiful birds on their land. But feeding red kites the wrong types of food can cause serious dietary deficiencies which could lead to death. If you do decide to feed red kites, it is important to follow the advice given by ZSL and the Chilterns Conservation Board.”
Cathy Rose, from the CCB, adds: “There is plenty of natural food available to kites in the Chilterns countryside so they really don’t need any more from us. The best thing we can do for them is let them remain wild and scavenge for themselves without interference.”
Red kites were historically a common sight in England, scavenging for scraps in towns. Both Chaucer and Shakespeare mention the bird in their works, with Shakespeare referring to London as “the city of kites and crows”. Their numbers started to dwindle around 200 years ago when organised rubbish disposal reduced food availability and drove them out of towns into the countryside, where they were persecuted as a perceived threat to game birds and livestock. At one point their numbers fell so dramatically it was thought only a single female of breeding age existed in the whole of the UK.
Download our leaflet: Helping Red Kites - A good practice guide for landowners in England (590 KB)