Let’s go fly a red kite
A bird’s eye view from Argaty
Step onto a vast Scottish estate, where you’ll be welcomed by the owner, a red kite. Using a human scribe, this bird of prey cracks open their past, and explores the connection between human and bird
In TOPIA’s series, Call of the Wild, nature talks. Can you listen?
Welcome to a farm where
red kites soar through the clouds.
And red squirrels leap through the trees.
Where beavers shape waterways.
And food production helps nature.
The non-winged folk arrive daily to our 1,400 acre Scottish estate in Argaty. We red kites, in the spirit of good hosting, entertain them. Our forked tails and graceful flight must seem marvellous, not to mention our woodlands, ponds, grass parks and open moorland. Quite a sight, even from ground level.
When not entertaining, my family and I are partial to hunting across the moors and keeping house in the woods. The land really is most excellent for insects and small rodents.
But we haven’t always resided in this safe haven. Stories of persecution have been passed down the generations, even if some parts of the tale are missing. Intrigued, I set about finding the answers to how we came to be at Argaty, and why the humans gaze at us with such admiration.
To begin my quest, I went straight to the top. Tom Bowser runs Argaty Red Kites with his parents Lynn and Niall, ranger Nicky, and volunteers. I often see him checking our nests (he’s stolen nothing valuable as of yet), guiding walks and hosting evening talks hinged on how wonderful we red kites are. I’ve subtly listened to some of those talks, and heard him talking about the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme, which he describes as an enormous citizen science project to monitor bird populations. This, perhaps, would explain why Keith the tree climber fits all our young with leg rings. I caught Tom at a suitable moment, and quizzed him. If he was surprised by my line of questioning, he did not show it.
“Kites were wiped out in Scotland and England by the early twentieth century,” he began. This, of course, I knew. From 1989, he explained, reintroduction projects sprang up.
“Our project began in 1996 when RSPB Scotland started reintroducing red kite chicks imported from Germany to central Scotland. The release sites were on the two estates to the immediate west of Argaty, but rather than stay there the birds quickly relocated to Argaty instead,” he told me.
I had no reason to disbelieve him. I’d always been led to believe that we Argaty kites have German heritage.
“In 1998 we had the first central Scotland nest that anyone knows of for over a century, and having a resident pair of birds seemed to have a bit of a magnetic pull on the other young kites that were being brought in by the RSPB,” Tom explained. “With them came loads of birdwatchers, desperate to catch a glimpse of these rare birds, and my parents decided to invite them in, allow them to see the kites from a safe distance and learn about their lives.”
The idea to protect us by putting us in the public eye was inspired by the RSPB’s Osprey project in Loch Garten.
“It changed the way we protected birds in this country, and influenced so many projects.”
It all adds up. This, of course, was when the humans started offering us extra food on top of our hunting – a tradition that continues to this day. A buffet of foraged meats is served for us daily: rack of wild venison, grey squirrel amuse-bouche, roadkill à la king, and so on and so forth. Occasionally a buzzard, heron, or magpie guest joins the table (without invitation, I might add). But we dine with an audience as the humans oh-so-conspicuously crouch in their hides, all through the year. Really, they have no shame. Luckily, we kites are unafraid of these interlopers. Tom explained to me why these strange creatures stare at us so intently – watching us and learning our story helps them fall further in love with us, and grow a distaste for illegal wildlife persecution. I had wondered what their business was.
“Human persecution, associated with intensive grouse moor management remains the greatest threat red kites face,” Tom explained. “Every year birds are killed on the moors, but the remote locations of these crimes make it very hard to catch the criminals. Everyone knows which estates are to blame, but getting the required evidence for a conviction is so hard. Thankfully the Scottish Government is to change the laws affecting shooting estates, and this may make prosecutions easier. It’s not before time.”
After warning me which very estates to avoid should I value my life, Tom explained that we as a species have risen to the repopulation challenge with aplomb, with a fifth of the world’s kite population here on these splendid British Isles.
We might have been the egg from which Argaty hatched, but the Bowsers built on our success.
“We now run all sorts of ecotourism ventures – kite photography hides, red squirrel hides, buggy tours and a holiday cottage. None of this was really part of the plan back in the mid-90s, but our lives changed with the kites’ arrival and it opened our eyes to the world of tourism.”
And of course the most recent residents to our estate make for a splendid attraction, the beavers. Funny creatures. Workaholics, if you were interested in my opinion.
“Kites are a symbol of hope,” Tom told me, and I can’t help but agree. “They were extinct in Scotland and England but are now back and thriving. It shows we can turn things around, and gives hope that we can reverse ecological declines. I think that’s what I love most about them.”
Airmail from my Spanish relatives
Correspondence from a distant cousin on the continent alerted me to a very interesting story, which might provide more insight into my own. We kites reside almost completely in Europe, and the story of a Spanish red kite release piqued my interest. I conversed with David Lindo, otherwise known as the Urban Birder, who witnessed this extraordinary event and joined the project to document it through his camera and the strange human practice of writing.
David was un-enthusiastic about the fate that has befallen red kites in the UK, once even a common urban bird in his home city of London, he told me.
“But then when the gamekeeping industry started, anything with a hooked beak and claws was deemed as vermin. And that was the start of the extermination. They were basically exterminated to the point that they were only found in mid Wales,” he said.
In Spain, we’d historically had a fairly good population. In fact, David explained how a release of Spanish red kites in the UK was the nucleus of the current British population. Britain is a melting pot of European kite cultures, it seems!
“But in the meantime, the Spanish population has fallen through the floor,” David said, especially of southern Spain. Not such glad tidings.
In Extremadura, where David was when we spoke, there are fewer than 100 breeding pairs, although many more arrive to overwinter. The red kite project there is being jointly run by the likes of wildlife conservation and research charity the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation; the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds); Life Eurokite, which protects red kites across multiple European countries; and Spanish rescue centre AMUS, which David describes as both brilliant and severely underfunded. They and others brought young red kites to Extremadura, and housed them in aviaries while they were ringed and fitted with monitors.
At 4am one August morning (a very fine time of day), David perched in a hide, ready to watch the release of my Spanish relatives. They were left to fly out of the averies freely, and a few did David the courtesy of waiting until sunlight so that he could document this momentous day with his camera.
“It was quite poignant, really, in many ways,” David said. “It’s hoped that these birds will start replenishing the populations that have been declining. A part of the reason for the decline in Spain up until now has been hunting, poisoning, wind farms – collisions with the terminals – and electrocution, but there’s been a lot of work done over the last decade or so with farmers and other stakeholders to try and educate them regarding power cables and things like that.”
The Urban Birder, from London and now living in Spain, has roosted in the medieval city of Cáceres. But he knows all too well that there are opportunities to spot birds everywhere.
“I stand on top of tall buildings in the hearts of cities, and I’ve seen amazing things flying over,” David said. “Anything could be anywhere – sewage farms, cemeteries, local parks, back gardens, walking down the street. And that’s for me the beauty of it. You don’t have to be in the middle of nowhere, you can actually be in the middle of somewhere.”
For readers who are not experts on birdfolk, David’s first piece of advice is simply look up. Next, don’t concern yourselves with identifying us, just enjoy what’s around you. If you get the itch to educate yourselves further (and who wouldn’t?) then strike out with a pair of binoculars, and get acquainted with some like-minded human beings who might be able to teach you a little about birding. Or there’s the Urban Birder World Community, his courses, or recommended city birding guides. And for little human chicks, David’s The Extraordinary World of Birds book might be a good start. Personally I struggle to turn the pages, but the reviews are excellent.
“Birds are one of the easiest ways of connecting to nature. The work I do is all about trying to connect people with the environment and nature, but through the medium of birds,” David wisely told me. We birds are a reminder that nature is all around us.
I may have set out to explore the rich history of my ancestors that landed me in this Scottish estate, but my mind has become occupied by another matter. This connection between birdwatching and conservation, as far as human interests go, is one to which I hold no objection. What is it about birds that so fascinates humans?
To delve deeper, I went stateside.
Big city birds
After hatching in 2016 as a small group of like-minded birdwatchers in New York City, the Feminist Bird Club has over 20 chapters across the world – one, in fact, in Inverness, Scotland. I spoke with Karla Noboa, president of the organisation, who’s based in Philadelphia.
“It was really an effort to create more of a diverse and safe space for folks to engage with the outdoors,” they said, explaining the roots of the organisation. It’s a group that centres marginalised people, both on the board and in who it chooses as group leaders.
Having never been on a bird walk (I have been human spotting), Karla explained that their previous experiences usually involved “an old white guy” dictating to participants what was happening, with no chance to stop and look.
The Feminist Bird Club has a different approach to bird walks. The walk leader will describe the bird in question and see if anyone already knows what it is, or do a collective identification. The walks are slow-paced and sociable, perhaps more of a stroll or amble.
“It’s a really nice environment, because it just feels really fun. It feels like I’m hanging out with my friends. But I also feel like I’m learning at the same time. So that’s our approach with the traditional birdwalk,” Karla explained. “We also do things like bird sits, where you get together in a location, and you literally just sit in one place and see what birds come to you. Those are actually my favourite type of events.”
Alongside creating accessible, inclusive events in the outdoors and the virtual world, the Feminist Bird Club has also spread its wings into fundraising. Board member Molly Adams developed a sew-on patch to fundraise for Black Lives Matter, and now it’s an annual tradition to create a new patch with a different bird and donate to a social justice organisation – last year the effort raised over $10,000. 2022’s choice is the female belted kingfisher and I am certain the red kite design must be just around the corner.
Like the other bird-obsessed humans I’ve spoken to, Karla values the connection between our two species.
“I think that by looking at birds, by watching birds, seeing how they exist, it can really teach you a lot about yourself,” they said. “I feel like when you connect with nature, whether it’s birds or something else, it really just brings you back to the fact that you are just a living being.”
Karla spent a lot of time in Ecuador as a fledgling human, always surrounded by incredible nature. When it came to leaving the nest, they wanted to learn about using science to save the planet, and so studied natural resources, part of which was ornithology. This was the spark for their bird fascination, before they started working for an organisation doing restoration activities in support of bird conservation.
When Karla goes on a bird walk, they typically see house sparrows, cardinals, and blue jays, with migrating species like warblers in the spring. Birds of prey are often spotted too – red-tail hawks, kestrels, and vultures, in particular. No red kites, of course, which is a pity. While I wonder what it might be like to see a vulture (and I am in no hurry to do so), Karla can’t fathom how commonly we in the British Isles see magpies. They have never seen one.
“For me, bird watching is really meditative. And whenever I feel overwhelmed or anxious or stressed out, if I go out bird watching, it really, really centres me and calms me down,” they said.
Connecting with birds and the natural world in this way has another benefit, Karla explains: it helps humans to understand the impact of climate change. If they care about birds and see our habitats being destroyed, they can put the pieces together.
My journey into my own history, it seems, is only just beginning. But I do perhaps have a new understanding of why groundlings are so interested in not only red kites, but other creatures of the sky. Humans might have been responsible for the demise of so many of us, but through us they can learn how to better protect the world we all share. I do hope, as I sample the next smorgasbord on offer at my home in Argarty, I am able to impart some of this wisdom to a few more human beings.
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Want more from Season 02 of TOPIA?
It’s inspired by The Egg – and a cracking good read
What’s so good about this?
Argaty Red Kites are finding ways to connect people with the world and allow them to see the beauty of nature for themselves. They’re harnessing tourism to change hearts and minds, all while offering a safe haven for wildlife.
Meet the writer
When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.