One of the Museum’s newest specimens is a splendid red kite, displayed in the upper north gallery. The red kite’s re-introduction to England and Scotland is one of Britain’s most successful conservation stories. For centuries this bird was a common sight in towns and cities, where it acted as a very efficient street cleaner, feeding on discarded animal carcasses, offal and rotting garbage. In medieval times it was so valued for this function that it was protected by law, and until the start of the 19th century it was abundant throughout much of Britain and Europe.
Unfortunately, many birds of prey became persecuted as they were suspected of taking game birds. Even though the red kite does not take live prey larger than rodents, insectivores, and rabbits, its numbers soon declined catastrophically. The last recorded breeding pair in Oxfordshire was around 1830, and by 1900 just a few remained in Wales, with none at all in England or Scotland.
Around 1990, red kites were reintroduced to several parts of Great Britain, and within ten years the population had grown significantly. Although the numbers are steadily growing, the red kite’s conservation status is classified as ‘amber’: still needing protection, but no longer ‘red’ which would indicate a threat of extinction.
Because of their protected status, whenever a dead red kite is found, it must be forwarded to the Zoological Society for a compulsory post-mortem. The post-mortem carcasses are usually too damaged to be suitable for taxidermy, so we were very fortunate that the combined goodwill of the vets in the Zoological Society and our freelance taxidermist, Derek Frampton, made it possible to obtain this specimen.