Shakespeare's red kite returns to London after an absence of 150 years
Once it was as much a London bird as the ravens in the Tower of London. The streets of Shakespeare's capital were full of red kites. "The city of kites and crows," he calls it.
Although magnificent in appearance, the birds were scavengers, never short of a meal at a time when people threw their rubbish in the street. They also stole washing off lines for their nests, and Autolycus, the streetsmart conman in A Winter's Tale, warns: "When the kite builds, look to lesser linen."
But gradually improving public hygiene and waste-disposal robbed the red kite of its niche in the London ecosystem, and by the end of the 18th century it was extinct as a breeding bird. The last sighting on the streets of the capital was in 1859. Until this week.
Michael Croft, who lives in Hackney, east London, was amazed at what he saw outside his back door. "I heard an awful commotion and saw these great wings; it was huge," he said. "It was being chased by crows and magpies. It was crazy, like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock film. I know buzzards get mobbed by birds so I realised what was happening. At first I thought it was an eagle and called police."
The kite's appearance marks the most striking advance yet in the bird's return across the country in the past 15 years, in what has been the most successful wildlife reintroduction programme Britain has experienced.
For most of the 20th century, red kites were absent from all of the country except for central Wales, where a about 40 pairs stubbornly clung on, helped by dedicated volunteers who guarded the nests from egg-collectors. The first Welsh kite protection programme started in 1903 and is the longest continuous conservation project in the world. But in 1989 British conservationists began an ambitious scheme to reintroduce Milvus milvus to its former haunts, using a few young Welsh birds, and more from Sweden and Spain.
The release of 93 birds in England and Scotland between 1989 and 1994 proved a spectacular success. The first breeding was in 1992 and the population has mushroomed, especially in the Chiltern Hills north-west of London, the wooded slopes making perfect breeding territory. In 2004, out of an estimated total of 836 red kite breeding pairs in Britain, there were 215 nests in the Chilterns, out of an English total of 276. (The other English breeding centres are in Northamptonshire and Yorkshire.) The Welsh population was up to 500 pairs, with 60 breeding pairs in Scotland.
In 2005 there were probably nearly 1,000 pairs nesting, although no accurate figure is available, because they have spread so far. The Chilterns birds can be seen along the M40 from London to Birmingham, a spectacular sight with their five-foot wingspan and deeply forked tails. The kite Mr Croft saw in a Hackney back garden was almost certainly a Chilterns bird. "It was totally cool," he said. "It didn't bat an eyelid. I took my daughter with me and we looked at it for about five minutes before it flew away. It was beautiful."
Disappearing world: Global warming claims tropical island
Survival stories: When animals attack (and humans survive)
Plastic rubbish heaps at sea pose bigger threat to Earth than climate change, claims ocean expert
Silence to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of last ever passenger pigeon
The top 10 weirdest animal mating rituals
- 1 Al Pacino on suffering from depression: 'It can last and it's terrifying'
- 2 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 3 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain
£600 - £900 per day: Harrington Starr: Infrastructure Lead, (Trading infrastru...
£20000 - £21000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Software Solutio...
£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Supply teachers needed for va...
Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 4 Primary Teachers needed Rand...