Watch out for your laundry – there’s a kleptomaniac red kite about

The red kite will sometimes help itself to the contents of your clothes line. Photo: Getty Images

Joe Kennedy

Some years back in west Waterford a local man told me he had sighted a red kite (M ilvus milvus), a magnificent bird of prey, in the area around Helvick Head, Co Waterford. I did not doubt him as the bird was probably a storm arrival from Wales, where there was a small population, and in this Irish corner there was the attraction of the Comeragh mountain range looming in the near distance.

Around that time there were suggestions by bodies such as the Golden Eagle Trust, which had successes with reintroducing golden and white-tailed eagles, to introduce a programme for the return of red kites and some moves were taken in 2007 by the Trust and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

By the early 20th century in Ireland and Britain red kites had been almost totally wiped out by shooting estate gamekeepers and hillside sheep farmers traditionally anxious about protecting their flocks from “hawks” of any kind.

To many, kites were an unknown quantity and lumped in with eagles amid the folklore of giant birds snatching babies to carry off to their mountain eyries.

In fact, red kites, although hunters of small mammals such as rats, mice, young rabbits and birds and invertebrates such as earthworms, are essentially seekers and eaters of carrion, traditionally sheep carcasses on mountain pastures.

In the Spanish region of Extremadura farmers are paid to leave out dead sheep in the open countryside for carrion-eating birds. Kites do not kill lambs.

A Scots farmer who leaves out food for kites, including the innards of red deer, was asked if he feared the birds would take any of his lambs in a recent interview and replied emphatically: “No, it’s basic physics. The bird weighs less than a bag of sugar. It can’t do it.”

A British conservation biologist, Dr Matt Stevens, explained that the kite’s beak and grip strength were poor and its main source of food had to be carrion — it could not lift sizeable chunks of meat.​

The Co Wicklow kite reintroduction programme began with a number of birds from Wales and has expanded into Wexford, south Co Dublin, Fingal and south Co Down. The objective is to establish a population on the east coast.

From a remaining handful of birds in Wales and 11 young birds from Spain reintroduced to northern England about 30 years ago there are now 4,000-plus pairs of red kites in England, Scotland and Wales.

A red kite has a wingspan of up to 190cm, is elegant and graceful in flight with long wings and long forked tail, a reddish-brown body with dark streaks, orange-red tail and a pale streaked head.

In flight, the underwing has black-fingered tips. The bird soars in easy flight, changing its tail angle to steer.

It is a woodland breeder, beginning now, in late March, to build a nest of twigs in a tree fork, sometimes decorated with discarded rag waste with an ancient reputation of thieving from domestic clothes lines.

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale advised: “When the kite builds, look to your lesser linen.”

Major Robin Ruttledge’s seminal Ireland’s Birds (1966) has just three sightings of kites — Kilcoole, Co Wicklow (no date) and Slane, Co Meath and Co Down in November 1951, probably the same bird.

A red kite is a striking bird in the sky and is a joy to behold. And don’t mistake it for a buzzard. Notice the forked tail and see how it soars — like a kite.