KITE,[1] the Falco milvus of Linnaeus and Milvus ictinus of modern ornithologists, once probably the most familiar bird of prey in Great Britain, and now one of the rarest. Three or four hundred years ago foreigners were struck with its abundance in the streets of London. It was doubtless the scavenger in ordinary of that and other large towns (as kindred species now are in Eastern lands), except where its place was taken by the raven; for Sir Thomas Browne (c. 1662) wrote of the latter at Norwich—“in good plentie about the citty which makes so few kites to be seen hereabout.” John Wolley has well remarked of the modern Londoners that few “who see the paper toys hovering over the parks in fine days of summer, have any idea that the bird from which they derive their name used to float all day in hot weather high over the heads of their ancestors.” Even at the beginning of the 19th century the kite formed a feature of many a rural landscape in England, as they had done in the days when the poet Cowper wrote of them. But an evil time soon came upon the species. It must have been always hated by the henwife, but the resources of civilization in the shape of the gun and the gin were denied to her. They were, however, employed with fatal zeal by the gamekeeper; for the kite, which had long afforded the supremest sport to the falconer, was now left friendless,”[2] and in a very few years it seems to have been exterminated throughout the greater part of England, certain woods in the Western Midlands, as well as Wales, excepted. In these latter a small remnant still exists; but the well-wishers of this beautiful species are naturally chary of giving information that might lead to its further persecution. In Scotland there is no reason to suppose that its numbers suffered much diminution until about 1835, or even later, when the systematic destruction of “vermin” on so many moors was begun. In Scotland, however, it is now as much restricted to certain districts as in England or Wales, and those districts it would be most inexpedient to indicate.

The kite is, according to its sex, from 25 to 27 in. in length, about one half of which is made up by its deeply forked tail, capable of great expansion, and therefore a powerful rudder, enabling the bird while soaring on its wide wings, more than 5 ft. in extent, to direct its circling course with scarcely a movement that is apparent to the spectator below. Its general colour is pale reddish-brown or cinnamon, the head being greyish-white, but almost each feather has the shaft dark. The tail feathers are broad, of a light red, barred with deep brown, and furnish the salmon fisher with one of the choicest materials of his “flies.” The nest, nearly always built in the crotch of a large tree, is formed of sticks intermixed with many strange substances collected as chance may offer, but among them rags[3] seem always to have a place. The eggs, three or four in number, are of a dull white, spotted and blotched with several shades of brown, and often lilac. It is especially mentioned by old authors that in Great Britain the kite was resident throughout the year; whereas on the Continent it is one of the most regular and marked migrants, stretching its wings towards the south in autumn, wintering in Africa, and returning in spring to the land of its birth.

There is a second European species, not distantly related, the Milvus migrans or M. ater of most authors,[4] smaller in size, with a general dull blackish-brown plumage and a less forked tail. In some districts this is much commoner than the red kite, and on one occasion it has appeared in England. Its habits are very like those of the species already described, but it seems to be more addicted to fishing. Nearly allied to this black kite are the M. aegyptius of Africa, the M. govinda (the common pariah kite of India),[5] the M. melanotis of Eastern Asia, and the M. affinis and M. isurus; the last is by some authors removed to another genus or sub-genus as Lophoictinia, and is peculiar to Australia, while M. affinis also occurs in Ceylon, Burma, and some of the Malay countries as well. All these may be considered true kites, while those next to be mentioned are more aberrant forms. First there is Elanus, the type of which is E. caeruleus, a beautiful little bird, the black-winged kite of English authors, that comes to the south of Europe from Africa, and has several congeners—E. axillaris and E. scriptus of Australia being most worthy of notice. An extreme development of this form is found in the African Nauclerus riocourii, as well as in Elanoides furcatus, the swallow-tailed kite, a widely-ranging bird in America, and remarkable for its length of wing and tail, which gives it a marvellous power of flight, and serves to explain the unquestionable fact of its having twice appeared in Great Britain. To Elanus also Ictinia, another American form, is allied, though perhaps more remotely, and it is represented by I. mississippiensis, the Mississippi kite, which is by some considered to be but the northern race of the Neotropical I. plumbea. Gampsonyx, Rostrhamus and Cymindis, all belonging to the Neotropical region, complete the series of forms that seem to compose the sub-family Milvinae, though there may be doubt about the last, and some systematists would thereto add the perns or honey-buzzards, Perninae.  (A. N.) 

  1. In O.E. is cýta; no related word appears in cognate languages. Glede, cognate with “glide,” is also another English name.
  2. George, third earl of Orford, died in 1791, and Colonel Thornton, who with him had been the latest follower of this highest branch of the art of falconry, broke up his hawking establishment not many years after. There is no evidence that the pursuit of the kite was in England or any other country reserved to kings or privileged persons, but the taking of it was quite beyond the powers of the ordinary trained falcons, and in older days practically became limited to those of the sovereign. Hence the kite had attached to it, especially in France, the epithet of “royal,” which has still survived in the specific appellation of regalis applied to it by many ornithologists. The scandalous work of Sir Antony Weldon (Court and Character of King James, p. 104) bears witness to the excellence of the kite as a quarry in an amusing story of the “British Solomon,” whose master-falconer, Sir Thomas Monson, being determined to outdo the performance of the French king’s falconer, who, when sent to England to show sport, “could not kill one kite, ours being more magnanimous than the French kite,” at last succeeded, after an outlay of £1000, in getting a cast of hawks that took nine kites running—“never missed one.” On the strength of this, James was induced to witness a flight at Royston, “but the kite went to such a mountee as all the field lost sight of kite and hawke and all, and neither kite nor hawke were either seen or heard of to this present.”
  3. Thus justifying the advice of Shakespeare’s Autolycus (Winter’s Tale, iv. 3)—“When the kite builds, look to lesser linen”—very necessary in the case of the laundresses in olden time, when the bird commonly frequented their drying-grounds.
  4. Dr R. Bowdler Sharpe (Cat. Birds Brit. Mus. i. 322) calls it M. korschun, but the figure of S. G. Gmelin’s Accipiter Korschun, whence the name is taken, unquestionably represents the moor-buzzard (Circus aeruginosus)
  5. The Brahminy kite of India, Haliastur Indus, seems to be rather a fishing eagle.