Red Kite Information & FAQ's

2. Taxonomy, Description, Plumage and Moult

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TAXONOMY. The Red Kite Milvus milvus is a large graceful bird of prey. It belongs to a family called Accipitridae and the genus Milvus. The other species that belongs to the genus Milvus, is the Black Kite - Milvus migrans. The black kite can rarely be seen in the UK, although it is very common in Continental Europe within the Red Kites range.

GENERAL DESCRIPTION. The Red Kite has a large wingspan of approximately 5-5 half feet. It has a distinct forked tail, which is used rather like a 'rudder', long wings, and bright yellow legs. The bill is yellow at the base and has a brown tip.

A young kite showing the dull grey eye colour.

Adult Kites have bright yellow eyes, whilst the young kites have a duller grey/yellow colour, becoming brighter (see photo)

The young Kite tail is not as deeply forked as that of an adult, although this isn't always easy to see when in the field.

Both male and females are similar, with the female usually larger, and more heavier than the male, although it is difficult to distinguish between the two sexes in the field. DNA tests can be undertaken on the chicks when determining the sex.

Considering the large wingspan, the kite isn't a heavy bird - it weighs no more than 2-3lbs (0.9 - 1.3kg). One group of young children, when learning of the weight of the kite, likened it to a small flying chicken!

FLIGHT. In flight, the Kite is graceful, using slow wing movements, and is often seen gliding over the countryside. They are also surprisingly agile when flying below the woodland canopy, and can also move at remarkable speed when flying away from road kill as cars approach!

CALL. (Listen to kites calling by clicking on the 'Listen to kites' section). The Red Kite can be quite vocal, with their 'mewing' call. I listen to them calling almost every day whilst perching in the trees, flying around, and occasionally chasing off the buzzards. Personal experience tells me they are just as vocal outside the breeding season - they call year round. Although in some ways similar, the Kite call is distinguishable from the common Buzzard.

PLUMAGE. The adult has a pale grey head, which usually lightens with age, although it is streaked dark. The breast and underparts are reddish brown (rufous) and darkly streaked. The wings have white 'windows' underneath which are the primary feathers that are also black at the tip ('fingers'). The tail is rufous above but paler and duller on the underparts.

Young kites have a 'washed out' colour, and a white 'line' running across the wings- both above and below - which is the result of white tips to the greater coverts.


The photo on the left shows an adult bird in moult. The photo on the right shows a young bird experiencing one of its first moults.

Red Kites moult annually, with non breeding birds beginning to moult early in the year. The moult takes several months to complete.

The summer time offers an opportunity to note the difference between adults and young kites when in flight. Adults will normally have large gaps in their wing and tail, where feathers have dropped, whilst the young birds out of the nest that year will look 'clean, fresh, and new' compared to the adults! During the moulting period, one can get the impression the Kites have disappeared from the skies. This is due to them spending large amounts of time perching in trees, rather than inefficiently flying around with lots of feathers missing, looking the worse for wear.

Wing and tail feathers kindly left in my garden courtesy of moulting kites.

These photos contains feathers from the wing and the tail

The photo on the left shows two tail feathers and one primary feather (the large fingers at the end of the wing).

All these feathers have been found in and around the garden and woodland, as a result of the annual moult. Kite feathers are generally quite easy to find in the countryside.

A rare glimpse of the body feathers just as the Kite is having a good 'shake'.