Pick of the German Week 02/2000........The Red Kite in Germany and Europe - Snowy Owls move South

The Red Kite Milvus milvus
German Bird of the Year 2000



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The German Nature Protection Society (NABU) has nominated the Red Kite (Milvus milvus) as German Bird of the Year 2000. The NABU's aim this year is to draw attention to the problems caused by the spread of intensive farming methods.

The Threatened Mouse Hunter Johan Andreas Naumann, the founder of scientific ornithology, reported in 1803: " In this region it is such a common raptor that everyone knows it well." At that time, in the fruitful agricultural region of central Germany, the Red Kite lived well on the numerous field mice (Microtus arvalis) and hamsters (Cricetus cricetus). Until man stepped in and harassed this beautiful through hunting and later through mechanisation of agricultural methods. As with the Skylark (1998) and the Yellowhammer (1989) the Red Kite is associated with human settlement. The Kite seeks his prey from an aerial viewpoint and therefore needs an open, well-structured landscape with meadows, fields, fringes of woods, hedges and lakes. In addition to living prey the Red Kite is partial to offal and so fulfils a natural hygienic role. Animal traffic casualties and victims of harvesting are welcome additions to his diet.

Gliding like a Child's Kite With a wingspan of up to 180 cm, the Red Kite is somewhat larger than a Buzzard (Buteo buteo) The German name 'Milan' comes from the French, whereas the British have named him aptly after the (not only) children's toy. Aptly because that is how the Red Kite appears, weightlessly circling in the heavens. In many areas the locals call the Kite 'Forked Harrier' (Gabelweihe). Named of course for the most obvious characteristic of the bird, the log, rust-red, deeply forked tail.

The Red Kite is a real European as the distribution is almost completely confined to the Old World. Germany in particular bears a heavy responsibility for the species: more than half of the world's population breed here, and two thirds of those in the eastern provinces (former GDR). And there, in its well-established territory, the Red Kite faces the greatest threat – through the introduction of western agricultural practices the numbers of Red Kites in eastern Germany has drastically fallen by 25 % in the 10 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. (For a summary of European distribution see below)


Name: 'Rotmilan', from the French; scientific name Milvus milvus; regionally 'Forked Harrier' (Gabelweihe). Closest relation is the Black Kite (Schwarzmilan) (Milvus migrans). Belongs together with Harriers, Buzzards, Old World Vultures and Eagles to the family of Hawks (Accipitridae).

Identification: At 65 cm somewhat larger than the Common Buzzard with a wingspan up to 180 cm. Brownish upperparts. Head pale, whitish to grey. Sexes outwardly similar: Special characteristic is the long, deeply forked rust-red tail. 'Weightless', buoyant flight like a toy kite.

Voice: Seldom calls except in the breeding season and when displaying between the end of March to the beginning of July. The call is thin and piping – a drawn out 'wee-ooh, ee oo ee oo ee oo'.

Food: Mice, hamsters, small birds, fish, offal and refuse. Rubbish dumps play and important role as a food source and encourage overwintering.

Breeding: From begin to middle of April, one brood. 2-3 eggs, rarely 4. Average incubation 33 days. In nest until fledged after 6 – 8 weeks, remain with parents a further 4 weeks.

Nest: up to 1 m in height and high up in trees (often over 20 m). Often 'decorated with paper, rags and plastic.

Distribution: Europe south of the 60th Parallel (southern Sweden). A realistic world population of 22,500 pairs at the start of the last decade (1900 – sadly these figures must be probably be revised downwards) distributed roughly as follows:

Germany – 9,200 to 12,000

Spain – 3,000 to 4,000

France – 2,500 to 3,000

Switzerland – 800 to 1,200

Sweden – 700 to 800

Poland – 500 to 600

Great Britain – 250 to 300

Italy – 150

Portugal – 100

Others (Austria, Belgium, Belarus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Morocco, Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia. Populations in Iraq, Tunisia and Turkey have yet to be quantified) – 200 to 350

A particular success story is Great Britain where from a small rump population in Wales at the start of the 20th Century of only 20 birds, protection measures and special projects have led to viable populations in Wales, Scotland and Southern England. The shift in the distribution area from deserted territories in the East and Southeast of Europe towards the North and Northwest has been registered but not yet fully studied.

Existential Threat: variable – heavily declining populations but also local increases. Particularly threatened through modern intensive farming methods (encouraged by CAP); but also by destruction of the hedges, bushes and wild plants where their natural prey and main food source bred and sheltered. Overwintering

The increase in overwintering birds as opposed to migration to the traditional winter quarters in Spain, Portugal and the south of France (individually in North Africa) has been on the increase for some decades. Although the food sources in a snow-covered landscape are not easy to find, the Red Kite has (re-)adapted to the by-products of our modern society and lives happily from rubbish dumps. Roosts of up to 200 birds have been reported in the vicinity of large dumps. The survival instinct functions well; with the dependable and regularly food sources preferable to a strenuous flight South and back, not to mention the veritable anti-aircraft batteries of hunter's guns in countries it is superfluous to name!

(With extracts from and 'Der Falke, the Birder's Journal and "Lueneburger Avifaunabrief 1 2000"


Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) in Neufelder Koog Vorland, Heide, Schleswig Holstein – Snowy Owl and Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) on the Island of Sylt.


A few comments on by Martin Helin Finland/EBN on Peter Barthel's suggestions (POTGW last week) for the increased number of Waxwing sightings this winter.

Food Shortage

"There definitely is lack of food in Finland, at least. In the winter of 1998-99 we had a very good crop of rowanberries, whereas this winter (1999-2000) the rowanberries were virtually non-existent by the time Waxwings started to come south."


"This has also been studied in Finland (quite a few years back) with similar results: the Waxwing's liver burns alcohol much faster than human beings. I can't remember any details of the study. Staggering birds may refer to individuals flying into windows." Martin Helin


Previous issues (beginning early 1999) will soon be found at @ POTGW ArchiveThe first 2 issues for 2000 are on line.

WEBSITES ~ worth yet another mention – Babel bird (texts & websites) and Babelbirdy (individual names) – an invaluable bird translation guide - from Rainer Jahn and Stefan Tewinkel from Bavarian Birds. Includes all Western Paelaarctic bird names (not yet all specific country splits – e.g. Holland) and regular N. American vagrants. Now applied in all reports'Best of Europe' - the latest reports from Europe and its borders

* whole texts and websites Babelbird

* for those who would only like to translate single bird names, babelbirdy Babelbirdy

David Conlin

GermanBirdNet Berlin

Mobile: +49 172 394 6671 Ô-Ô Best of Europe and POTGW Archives (under construction)

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