One of the most recognisable sights and sounds of the Berkshire skyline, the red kite is a creature adored and revered by many. Its regal red white and black colouring, distinctive forked tail and familiar call make it a familiar and reassuring presence for many who look up to the skies. Chief Reporter George Roberts spoke to the RSPB about the impact of COVID-19 on the red kite population in Berkshire.
A bird of prey of considerable size, red kites have wingspans of almost two metres. With sharp talons, beaks, and a beady eye, it looks like a deadly predator. But some may be surprised to learn that it is mainly a scavenger, looking out for carrion, roadkill and edible pieces of rubbish dropped by humans.
COVID-19 is not known to affect birds, but the impact of the virus may still be felt in the red kite population as the general public stays at home. Less cars on the road means less roadkill, and according to the speculations of Tony Whitehead, spokesman for the RSPB in England, the red kites may well be affected indirectly.
He said: “Red kites are scavenging birds, often on food in the countryside, things like road kill, or anywhere where there’s rubbish.
“Some of that rubbish will still be there to scavenge on, but the stuff dropped by humans on days out, you can expect to see less of.
“They are not really an urban bird, so in suburbs and smaller towns there might be a slight drop off in accessibility to food. As with less traffic there’s probably less road kill. Then that might mean there’s less food to feed their youngsters with.”
So with fewer people out and about dropping rubbish and running over critters, the red kite looks set to suffer. It wouldn’t be the first setback the species has endured - the red kite has suffered greatly throughout history.
During the Middle Ages the birds were seen as valuable scavengers, keeping the streets clean, and were protected by royal decree. Killing one led to capital punishment. But in the 1600s their persecution began. Along with many other birds of prey they were considered vermin and bounties were placed on their heads. In the following centuries gamekeepers wrongfully accused them of taking game, and in 1871 the species was hunted to extinction in England.
With a few breeding pairs surviving in Wales, though, recovery efforts were made from the 1950s when protection measures were put in place. As the species spread to lower altitudes, it had more breeding success. In 1989 the RSPB started establishing kites in other parts of the UK, and between 1995 and 2014, their population had risen by more than 1000 per cent. Today there are 1,600 breeding pairs in the UK.
So with kites set to endure another tough year at the hands of COVID-19, what kind of impact is it likely to have on the species as a whole? Fortunately, according to Tony, not a big one.
“One breeding season with slightly less productivity is not going to affect population, it's only if this is happening year on year,” he said. “One blip isn’t going to make much of an impact to the population.”
“It may have a short term immediate impact, it may lead to slightly fewer chicks this year, but it just isn’t going to be a danger to the population. You don’t determine the population on one breeding season.
“They can nest up next season. I am not going to be worried.”
Despite the issues that coronavirus has brought to the country, one thing that is helping to distract from all the uncertainty are birds. With the majority of the country stuck at home, working or otherwise, many are for the first time noticing the avian life in and around their local areas, be it in their gardens, their balconies and window boxes, or on walks and cycles around the block.
The RSPB is experiencing a big increase in the number of people reporting sightings of bird life they have never experienced before, leading many to speculate that species are moving closer to civilisation in an attempt to find food.
These speculations are misplaced though, according to Tony. The main reason that people are spotting bird life they have never seen before is because they have never had the opportunity to when they were off at work or school every day.
He said: “All these sightings are not a result of wildlife becoming more numerous in response to the new conditions, as has been suggested, but more people simply being around and paying more attention to what’s around them.
“This uplift in interest, and of people’s increased connection to nature is really heartening, and it’s to be hoped that it will continue once the restrictions are lifted.
One positive aspect that has come about during the lockdown is the public’s increased engagement with the RSPB and birdwatching. According to Tony there has been a ‘big uplift’.
However, it is no secret that over the last few years many bird species have been struggling, and there is hope that once the lockdown is over, awareness of avian life will increase.
Tony said: “It’s important to dismiss claims that nature will increase as a response to this (COVID-19).
“We are still in an ecological emergency, and it will take much more than a few months quiet to put nature back, nature that we’ve been losing for decades.
For many species that rely on how we manage land such as nature reserves, the current restrictions may have a detrimental effect. Which is why wildlife charities such as the RSPB still need public support, perhaps now more than ever. We really hope that the increase in interest we are seeing will translate into the support that nature so badly needs.”
To find out more about how you can engage with bird life online during lockdown, visit www.rspb.org.uk