Red Kites in County Down in Northern Ireland, Bird species reintroduction program

Red Kites Return to North of Ireland

July 24, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

After an absence of about 200 years, the magnificent Red Kite with its more than five foot wingspan, rusty-red coloring, distinctive forked tail, black wing tips and white patches under each wing, will once again grace the skies of County Down in Northern Ireland. The RSPB recently released twenty-seven Red Kite chicks in the County Down area as part of a pan-UK and Ireland reintroduction program.

This first ever species reintroduction in Northern Ireland, took place without any fanfare and was witnessed only by the release team and some journalists and photographers, but this does not mean that the release was without significance – in fact, it was the culmination of many years of hard work by a team of dedicated people. Robert Straughan, the RSPB’s Red Kite officer, had been part of the team looking after the birds prior to their release. The birds had been carefully removed from nests which contained more than one chick and were then hand-reared until they were capable of flying and fending for themselves. He expressed his confidence that the birds are healthy and should soon adapt to their new surroundings of mixed farmland, grasslands and woodland, which is the ideal habitat for Ret Kites.

The birds were set free in groups of four each day, with many showing extreme reluctance to leave the safety of their cages. However, once they were out, the birds soared up into the air and quickly disappeared into the dense woodland. Each bird was tagged and fitted with a tiny radio beacon prior to release, to allow research teams to follow them and monitor their survival rate. This will also enable researchers to establish how well each bird adapts to its environment and how the released birds interact with one another.

Red Kites were once a common sight in the countryside, but were driven to the brink of extinction in the United Kingdom by the invasion of man who, in addition to destroying their habitat, hunted and poisoned the birds. Although these are the first Red Kites to be reintroduced in Northern Ireland, some Red Kite chicks were released in County Wicklow on the east coast of Ireland during 2007, and now, largely thanks to these reintroduction programs, there are currently more than 1,000 breeding pairs of Red Kites spread across Scotland, England and Wales.

Due mainly to their size and their deceptively menacing-looking hooked bills, Red Kites are often seen by farmers to be a threat to their avian livestock. However, these birds are opportunistic scavengers that feed mainly on worms and already dead animals. They are not designed to feed on mobile prey and offer no threat to livestock, game birds or any other birds in flight.

The reintroduction of the Red Kite is seen as an important conservation project, which is likely to benefit tourism and the local economy of Ireland’s Down, Banbridge, Newry and Mourne councils. Birding enthusiasts are no doubt thrilled that these majestic birds have been given a reprieve through the efforts of the RSPB and its associates, and can participate in the ongoing success of the reintroduction project by reporting any Red Kite sightings to redkiteni@rspb.org.uk.

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