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Project IsoKite. What explains the Red Kite conservation success story?

Project Description

Red Kites (Milvus milvus) are one of our most charismatic birds of prey and they are an unparalleled conservation triumph. In medieval times, Red Kites were abundant, but from the mid-16th century, they were systematically slaughtered. By the 1930s only a few pairs survived in Wales. However, a successful reintroduction programme brought the Red Kite back in the 1990s and we now have close to 1600 breeding pairs in Britain.

Following re-introduction, no one expected that Red Kites would return to some of our cities. In Reading, some 300 Kites visit the town each day, a substantial proportion of the local population. These raptors are primarily scavengers, and it was thought that they were attracted by road kill and discarded food along the roadways, but work showed that this was an order of magnitude less than that required for the Kites. A questionnaire revealed that today ~10% of households in Reading have provided food for Red Kites. A national survey revealed that they were being fed a range of foods, from left-overs to prime cuts of meat. Is the success of the Red Kite reintroduction programme partly explained by the provision of supplementary food?

To answer this, the project will use stable isotope and fully mechanistic ecological modelling approaches to examine what/how much Kites are being fed on across the country. This will enable an understanding of the contribution of supplementary feeding to the conservation success of the Red Kite reintroduction programme. Naturally shed Red Kite feathers have been collected by licensed volunteers at >40 locations across Britain by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Samples of feathers and prey items (collected from nests) will be analysed for a range of stable isotopes (C, N, O, H and S) to determine the Kites’ diet components (natural vs human food). Feathers will also be analyzed sequentially for a time series on some sites (urban vs rural).

These data will be modelled using an ‘isoscape’ (isotope mapping) approach in ArcGIS ModelBuilder together with a fully mechanistic ecological model in R that would aim to build a model parameterised by the data from the field, and existing national scale datasets. This will be a process-based model for Red Kites to predict the impact of environmental and food changes based on a dynamic species distribution model approach. The fully mechanistic model will incorporate data from BTO on red kite distribution and abundance, detailed habitat and climatic data from CEH, small mammal distributions, and results from our national survey of supplementary feeding. This model will allow a detailed assessment of the relationships between Red Kite abundance and supplementary feeding.

The model will be used to predict the impact of a range of future feeding scenarios on the sustainability of Red Kite populations. The will produce a resilience map of the UK, highlighting areas where Red Kites are susceptible to declines should supplementary feeding stop. The model will also be used to form a predictive element for Red Kite distribution using a probabilistic assignment of Kites to habitats from the feather isotope data, together with isotope water, small mammal and data sets available from the literature. This will identify areas where Red Kites are reliant on supplementary feeding and at risk. This work will lead to developments in understanding the importance of similar human-wildlife interactions (e.g. for vultures) in determining the distribution and abundance for species.

Funding Notes

You should send your CV, a covering letter explaining why you are interested in this project, and the names and e-mail addresses of two academic referees. At least one of them should have supervised you on a previous research project. Project funding will go to the highest ranked students, and approximately one third of projects will be funded. Therefore, most successful applicants will have (or will receive a Masters level qualification, and at least a 2:1 or equivalent in their undergraduate degree. Many exceed this, and additionally have some research experience. I am very happy to provide informal advice.


Orros, M.E. & Fellowes, M.D.E. 2015 Widespread supplementary feeding in domestic gardens explains the return of the reintroduced red kite Milvus milvus to an urban area. Ibis 157, 230-238.

Orros, M.E. & Fellowes, M.D.E. 2014 Characterising supplementary feeding of the reintroduced red kite (Milvus milvus) in the UK. Bird Study 61, 260-263.

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