Black Kite

Milvus migrans

The Black Kite has dark plumage and is near in size to a buzzard. It requires open and partly-open areas near to water and woodlands in temperate climes. As a typical wetlands bird, the Black Kite is characteristic of the Danube wetlands, yet is one of the rarest raptors found in Austria. Approximately 40% of the total population lives in the Donau-Auen National Park, making the park the most densely populated and most important breeding ground in Austria. Illegal persecution of raptors and destruction caused by use of its habitat as recreational area are the main reasons for endangerment. Attention was drawn to the destructive effects of these activities for both the Black Kite and the related Red Kite, who co-starred in the "Bird of the Year" campaign in 2000.

Description
With a wingspan of approximately 150cm, the Black Kite is one of the largest breeding birds of prey in Austria. With the help of binoculars, this species is one of the easiest raptors to identify: dark-brown plumage which appears black at a great distance; the fork in the long tail (similar to a swallow) which disappears when tail is spread. Also characteristic are wings often held somewhat bent and below mid-body section and the Black Kite's somewhat dull beating of wings. Call often heard can be described as "vibrating".

Distribution
Austrian breeding grounds are home to only around 60-70 pairs. They may be divided into an eastern section extending from the March, lower Thaya and Danube wetlands westwards to Upper Austria; and a western section encompassing the Vorarlberg Walgau up to the Rhine Valley. Unlike in Austria, the Black Kite has a very large global population. Breeding grounds include all of Eurasia (with the exception of northernmost latitudes), Africa and even Australia. There is an especially high incidence of the species in areas with many lakes such as Switzerland, northern Italy, northeast Germany, as well as in the savannah-like climes of Central Spain. As a scavenger, the Black Kite often takes on the role of "Health Inspector" in tropical cities; in Istanbul in 1937, for example, a record 500 Black Kite pairs were recorded to have nested.

Endangerment and Conservation Status
According to the trusted source Crown Prince Rudolph, the Black Kite was once "frequently seen and everywhere" in the Danube Wetlands. It nested in veritable colonies despite being mercilessly persecuted during these times. Due to river regulation, the Black Kite population shrank to a tiny remnant of what it once was, and today it counts among the most endangered breeding birds in Austria. And the eastern Austrian population in particular has been hard hit in recent years. The reasons for the decline are not completely known, yet it may have something to do with the illegal persecution of raptors by humans, a recurring activity which has been documented more frequently in recent years in Lower Austria in particular. More and more often, cases become known in which White-tailed Eagles and other raptors fall victim to baits which have been prepared with poisonous substances which are difficult to trace (such as seed-applied pest control). It must be assumed that the Black Kite, just like its "sister" Red Kite, is especially threatened because kites are greater scavengers than other birds of prey. In addition, the Black Kite is more easily disturbed than most other raptors: in the Donau-Auen National Park, for example, broods in the most exposed nests – e.g. those near often-trod footpaths – may be abandoned by Black Kite pairs. In an attempt to draw attention to the plight of this rare bird, the Black Kite was named the "Bird of the Year" in 2000 by BirdLife Austria.

Behaviour
The Black Kite is a migratory bird which winters in tropical Africa and arrives in its breeding grounds around the end of March. The species often uses the same nesting place and pairs often arrive together. Their courtship can be spectacular: the pair flies towards each other, twisting and turning in curved arcs, and appear to clash and attack each other. Occasionally they actually join talons and allow themselves to spin in the air, spiralling dangerously towards the ground. When looking for food, the Black Kite glides slowly at lower heights over open fields. The most frequent prey includes dead fish which have been snatched from the surface. But they also eat other birds, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, insects (e.g. flying May beetles), carrion, road kill, and even rubbish taken from landfills. The Black Kite may behave aggressively towards other raptors and large birds such as Grey Herons, forcing them to give up their kill. Black Kites are however very sociable and may build their eyries near to each others, colony-style. Except during incubation, large numbers of birds – up to several hundred – often gather together to feed and sleep.

Special Characteristics
As occasional visitors to landfills, Black Kites have what can be described as a pragmatic attitude towards the design and building of their nesting grounds. While most raptors use natural materials such as foliage, brushwood, feathers and hair to line their eyries, Black Kites often use all sorts of souvenirs found near human settlements, including bits of fabric, paper, plastic, string, and even truly bizarre things: a stuffed bird has even been found lining a Black Kite's nest!