The Red kite is a medium-large graceful bird of prey. It belongs to the family of diurnal raptors, which also includes eagles, buzzards, and harriers. This elegant bird soars on long wings held at a dihedral, with a long forked tail, twisting as it changes direction. The body, upper tail and wing coverts are rufous. The white primary flight feathers contrast with the black wing tips and dark secondaries. The males and the females are similar in color, but juveniles have a buff breast and belly.
Red kites breed from Spain and Portugal east into central Europe and Ukraine, north to southern Sweden, Latvia and the UK, and south to southern Italy. There is a population in northern Morocco. Red kites are resident in the milder parts of their range in western Europe and northwest Africa. Northern birds move south in winter, mostly staying in the west of the breeding range, but also to eastern Turkey, northern Tunisia and Algeria. Red kites inhabit broadleaf woodlands mixed with heathland and pasture, valleys, thickets with nearby grasslands, or wetland edges. These birds can also be found in urban areas.
Red kites are diurnal birds. They are usually seen singly or in pairs, but sometimes may roost in small groups or form small flocks during migration. These raptors prefer to hunt their prey in open areas, flying low above the ground. They will also hunt sitting on a perch for many hours waiting on prey to pass by. When the prey is spotted, the kite will dive bomb to catch it with the talons. Red kites are generally silent; however, their common call is a thin piping sound which birds make in flight and when excited they usually produce a high-pitched 'kiou-ki-ki-ki or 'rriu-rri-rri'.
Red kites are carnivores and scavengers. These birds feed mainly on small mammals such as mice, voles, shrews, young hares, and rabbits. They will also hunt live birds and occasionally reptiles and amphibians. Earthworms form an important part of the diet, especially in spring. Red kites also consume a wide variety of carrion including sheep carcasses and dead game birds.
Red kites are monogamous; they mate for life and breed from March till May. The nest is usually placed in a fork of a large hardwood tree at a height of between 12 and 15 m (39 and 49 ft) above the ground. A pair will sometimes use a nest from the previous year and can occasionally occupy an old nest of the common buzzard. The nest is built by both sexes. The male brings dead twigs that are placed by the female. The nest is lined with grass and sometimes also with sheep's wool. The female lays 1 to 3 eggs but 4 and even 5 eggs have occasionally been recorded. The eggs are non-glossy with a white ground and red-brown spots. Incubation is mainly done by the female, but the male will relieve her for short periods while she feeds. The male will also bring food for the female. Incubation lasts 31-38 days. The chicks hatch altricial (helpless) and are cared for by both parents. The female broods them for the first 14 days while the male brings food to the nest which the female feeds to the chicks. Later both parents bring items of food that are placed in the nest to allow the chicks to feed themselves. The nestlings begin climbing onto branches around their nest from 45 days; they rarely fledge before 48-50 days and sometimes not until they are 60-70 days of age. The young spend a further 15-20 days near the nest being fed by their parents. Red kites usually breed for the first time when they are 2 years old, although exceptionally they can successfully breed when they are only 1 year old.
The main threats to Red kites include poisoning, through illegal direct poisoning and indirect poisoning from pesticides (particularly in the wintering ranges in France and Spain), and changes in agricultural practices causing a reduction in food resources. Other threats include electrocution, hunting and trapping, deforestation, egg-collection and possibly competition with the generally more successful Black kite.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Red kite population size is around 25,200-33,400 pairs which are around 50,000-67,000 mature individuals. Currently, this species is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are decreasing.
Red kites are important predators and scavengers in their ecosystem. These birds control populations of their prey items and by eating carrion they clean up the environment, helping to prevent diseases from spreading.