Regularly spotted in Portugal, the red kite (milvus milvus) is one of the world’s most acrobatic birds of prey and a formidable sight with its reddish-brown body, angled wings and deeply forked tail.
Predominantly a wintering species in Portugal that occurs right along the border of the country from Alentejo (indicated on the map below) to Trás-os-Montes, but most commonly in the warmer south, red kites generally gather on communal roosts to spend the night during late autumn and winter with breeding populations in northern and central Europe being the primary source of wintering birds in the Iberian Peninsula.
Red kites’ wings are long with a span of up to 1.5 metres which enables them to glide and use thermals for gaining altitude without using much energy, managing to stay in the air for hours with hardly a beat of the wings.
During the Middle Ages, the red kite was common throughout Europe, especially in large towns and cities where it used to scavenge and clear the streets of edible refuse. But with the advent of modern sanitation and carcass disposal, the population gradually diminished, coupled with persecution by hunters, gamekeepers and egg collectors.
Despite its vulnerability, it has the capacity to live for up to thirty years and although experts believe that there are less than 1,000 pairs in the whole of Portugal, numbers are steadily rising due to conservation work and protection.
The red kite is an elegant bird, soaring on long wings and twisting majestically as it changes direction. Its white primary flight feathers contrast with the black wing tips and clear white patches under the wings.
Viewed from above, a broad white crescent curves across the inner part of the wings, but it is the underside that produces the most startling image.
The head is equipped with hooded amber eyes ringed with lemon yellow. The beak, wickedly hooked and very sharp, is designed for tearing meat and killing its prey. The legs and feet are bright yellow and can often be seen when the bird is in flight.
The red kite’s call is a thin piping sound, similar to but less mewling than the common buzzard, and the bird’s diet consists mainly of small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews, young hares and rabbits. Unlike the buzzard, it is usually silent while hunting, but it can be noisy when fighting for scraps of food with carrion crows and other kites.
Requiring open country for hunting, red kites’ nests are normally built in large trees close to the edge of forests. They prefer areas with small hills or mountains so that they can use rising air currents close to the mountain slopes.