by Paul Cormacain
A RED kite was seen near Lisburn last week and by any standards this would be a rare sighting.
The nearest kites would live in Wales, and they would not be very common there. Scotland, Ireland and England do not have any kites, although the story would be a different one many years ago. There is a black kite as well, and the red kite gets 'kite' much of the time.
The kite is an easily recognised bird, if you are lucky enough to see it. The head of the adult bird is white, and narrowly streaked with black, with the streaks being sparse on the forehead, and heavier on the nape and hind crown. The rest of the upper parts is reddish brown, the feathers with paler margins and dark middle.
The wings are like the upper parts, the wing coverts with broad rufous edges. The secondary feathers are almost all brown and the primaries have long black tips.
The kite's tail feathers are a bright reddish chestnut colour. The under parts below the white throat are coloured chestnut, with some black streaks on the breast. The feathers of the thigh are long, and coloured rufous chestnut with some black streaks. The bill is yellow with a black tip. The legs and feet are yellow.
Would you recognise a kite if you saw one.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the bird is the deeply forked tail, and if the bird is flying the tail is hugely noticeable. The wings are narrow, and are sharply bent backwards in flight. If you see that shape of a bird you will not have to consult the bird books to get an identification.
One school of thought claims that the red kite used to live in Dublin, but I have not been able to find any confirmation of this. However, the greatest concentration of this bird seems to have been in south east England, mostly in London. At that time, it was reckoned to be the most familiar bird of prey in England. How times have changed!
The bird was so common in London that visitors were struck with its abundance. In 1461 a foreigner asserted that he had never seen so many kites as around London Bridge.
I used to work in Tooley Street beside the bridge, and never saw a kite there. Then in 1555, someone observed that the kite was scarcely more numerous in Cairo than in London. And what were the red kites doing in London? Why, they were feeding on the garbage, as there were no bin men in those days. The kites were the scavengers who kept the streets of London clean!
Ravens were also very common in London in the old days, and kites and ravens were protected by law.
Then someone noticed that the kite had a liking for poultry. The more obvious this became, the closer the kite came to being unloved.
In those days, any housewife who could would keep a few chickens about the place. This was very handy if you got fed up going to the supermarket to buy the dinner, especially as there were no supermarkets at the time Even in my youth, I would see many folk who kept chickens; in fact I remember keeping a few in our town garden when I was a schoolboy. So handy to have, and you could always wring their necks if unexpected guests turned up for dinner. Hey presto, fresh free range chicken. What a treat!
If you saw the kites eyeing the birds, or heard from friends or neighbours that kites were being downright unfriendly with chickens, then your attitudes towards the red kite would change. And that is exactly what happened. Attitudes changed and the kite lost it legal protection.
The kites went away, but not completely, and young kites were mentioned in 1777 as being found in London. But numbers were going down. Finally, in 1859, a red kite was seen flying over Piccadilly, and it is believed that this was the last sighting. I wonder are there any kites in Cairo!
The kite became a thing of the past in Scotland and England, and only a few managed to live in Wales. Then we get another big change. The kite is now highly protected, and dare anyone try to endanger the bird in Wales. And the Lisburn bird. Well, it would be legally protected also. But has anyone else seen the bird?
Monday 2nd May - Bank Holiday craft activities at Castle Espie, a t2pm, phone 91874146. Craft activities, starting at 2pm, at Castle Espie, phone 91874146.
Saturday 7th May - Dawn Chorus Walk at Oxford Island, early bird start at 6am, more from 3834 7438. Breakfast and Bird Song, at lam, with Anthony McGeehan, at Castle Espie, whose number is 9187 4146.
Sunday 8th May - Willow event at Oxford Island at 2pm, more from 3832 2205.
Friday 20th May - There will be a May Spring Weekend, courtesy of Lisburn RSPB, going to Speyside. Contact Peter Galloway on 9266 1982 for more information.
Sunday 22nd May - Natural History Tour of Rathlin, at 9.30am to celebrate Biodiversity Day. For details phone 7000 3600.