Page last updated at 01:38 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

The street cleaner from the sky

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Red kites
Red kites will gather in large numbers at roost sites in winter

The red kite is one of Scotland's most recognisable birds because of its colour, angled wings and forked tail.

It is a species that Scots in the Middle Ages regarded as a "friend" and a kind of winged street cleaner, scavenging on waste food and dead animals in towns and villages.

But by the 16th Century it, along with other raptors, were classed as vermin and hunted to extinction in Scotland and England.

Following a re-introduction project in the 1980s and 1990s, its numbers hit a record high last year.

As the first of the late afternoon's commuters made their way across the Kessock Bridge, I was taken kite spying at a roost near Inverness.

In the deep winter months you can see upwards of 60-70 individuals at roosts
Claire Buchanan
RSPB red kite conservation officer

The crossing was just in view of the cold field in the Black Isle where RSPB staff Claire Buchanan and Alan Tissiman stood scanning the ice blue sky.

They watched quietly as commuters of a feathered variety started drifting in from various parts of the Highlands.

A wooded hillside in front of Claire and Alan is one of the biggest red kite roosts in the region. Its residents glided in as the sun went down.

Over winter, dozens will gather in the bare branches of the trees at this site overlooking the Moray Firth.

Claire, a red kite conservation officer, said: "Not many people know about the social behaviour of red kites. They are a gregarious species.

"In the deep winter months you can see upwards of 60-70 individuals at roosts.

"It is not the kind of behaviour you often get to see with birds of prey."

For juvenile birds, the roost also offers a safe place for them to play, strengthen wing muscles and find potential mates.

With angled wings and a deeply forked tail, red kites have the perfect shape for gliding effortlessly in search of carrion.

Red kite. Image: RSPB
Scavenging red kite were protected in the Middle Ages

Earth worms are another favourite food and farmers have seen the raptors feasting on worms turned over in a ploughed field.

At the Black Isle roost, a couple of kites waddled awkwardly on the ground. They eyeballed a lone buzzard, a more burly species of bird of prey, hunched on the ground nearby.

Claire said: "Buzzards are known to prey on kite chicks."

Alan identified a flock of redwings - the UK's smallest thrush - landed in a small tree. It was an RSPB red status species marking it as one of the country's most threatened birds.

The red kite falls into the second highest priority category, amber.

Historically, the bird was driven to the brink of extinction in the UK.

In the Middle Ages, the scavenger was protected by a royal decree because it helped to keep streets clean of discarded food and dead animals. Anyone who killed a kite faced capital punishment.

But the 16th Century marked the beginnings of a long dark age for the species. It was considered vermin along with other birds of prey and its persecution was encouraged by the authorities.

Gamekeepers wrongly blamed red kites for preying on game birds, the RSPB say, and it was extinct in England in 1871 and in Scotland in 1879.

A handful survived in mid-Wales aided by conservation efforts started in 1903.

In the 1980s the red kite was one of three globally threatened species in the UK.

Poisoned bait

A re-introduction programme was kick-started and in 1989 six Swedish birds were released at a site in north Scotland and four Swedish and one Welsh bird in Buckinghamshire.

The last kites were released in 1993 in Scotland and 1994 in England.

Last year in Scotland, numbers reached their highest in 150 years with at least 149 pairs of red kites and 234 young birds fledged.

However, illegally poisoned bait has been blamed for killing kites and hampering their spread into new territories.

Meanwhile, they do appear to be replicating the habits of the medieval kites and venturing into urban settings.

In the Highlands, the distinctive red-coloured raptor has been seen floating above the Raigmore Interchange and along the distributor road near Culduthel.

Claire said English kites had even been spotted in London.

At the Black Isle roost, she and Alan focussed binoculars with cold fingers one last time on kites before making their way back to a car for their own commute home.

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