Object of the Month – May 2024

May’s Object of the Month is a Red Kite, Milvus milvus, from the historic bird collection at Saffron Walden Museum.

Red kite, Milvus milvus   SAFWM : NB 235A ©

Red kites became extinct in England and Scotland by the 1870s due to hunting and persecution. However, after receiving legal protection, and being reintroduced from the surviving population in Wales and birds from Scandinavia, they have made a remarkable comeback and are once again living in Essex.

If you look up to the sky and see a large bird with angled wings and a forked tail soaring above, you have spotted a red kite. Essex Wildlife Trust members recorded their sightings in 2020. The birds were seen over Stansted, Bishop’s Stortford, Great Dunmow and Much Hadham in the south, and up to Duxford, Littlebury, Saffron Walden and Ashdon in the north.

Map of red kite sightings in 2020, T. Morton ©

The red kite, Milvus milvus, is a large bird of prey, with a wingspan of nearly 2 metres. They are 60-65 cm long and females are larger than males. The birds nest in broadleaf woodland. Red kites are scavengers mainly living off carrion. They also hunt small mammals like rabbits and eat earthworms. Their call is a ‘mewing’ sound. From medieval times the status of the bird alternated between valued scavenger of edible refuse in towns and bothersome opportunist snatching titbits from the poultry yard. In Tudor London the red kite population was protected by statute for its valuable refuse-disposal services.

Red kite flying © Mike Prince, Wikimedia Commons

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