If you are reading this in Hong Kong, look up and take-in the big brown bird of prey soaring majestically in a piece of sky near you. In winter you might see half a dozen at once, stacked up on thermals, effortlessly rising on invisible spiraling tracks. They hang like military spy-drones, watching our every move. One may peel off, shooting downwards like a dart hurled from above, until a subtle lilt of the tail tips it into a graceful curve around a block of flats.
They are kites, with 1.5 metre wingspans, and they thrive in this city. They navigate the gleaming tower blocks of the business district just as comfortably as they fly over lush forests and deep green valleys. They are called black kites here, but they have also been called black-eared kites, and milvus migrans by Latin enthusiasts.
Bird experts say the species is the planet’s most numerous raptor. Its range stretches from western Europe, through Asia, down to Australia, taking in Africa, and both central and south Asia. But Hong Kong is one of the best places to view these master flyers. It isn’t just that they are common here, both the geological and the urban topography present kite-spotters with perfect viewing platforms.
I am one of the worker-drones of the city who sits in a sky-scraper during the day, in an office perched 300 metres above ground. It is in a building that appears in postcards showing one of the world’s most recognisable skylines. Next time you see a picture like that look carefully for little brown specs in the sky. They’ll be the kites. They swoop our floor-to-ceiling windows, hugging an air corridor that wraps around the exterior. That is when you realise that these are big, hooked-beaked, talon-footed hunters.
For most people in Hong Kong, sitting in a high-rise office is the closest they get to these birds. The species has adapted successfully to human colonisation of the globe, but they know enough about us to keep their distance.
Hong Kong's kite population fluctuates through the year, with a few hundred permanent residents occupying strategic valleys and prime nesting spots. Their numbers swell every winter when some 3,000 birds migrate from the north, according to Dr Yip Chi Lap of the kite research group of the Hong Kong birdwatching society. We don't know where they come from, as tracking studies are yet to be done, but it’s reckoned that central Asia would be good bet.
Although these raptors will go for live prey, perhaps their real success comes from their blatant opportunism. They appear to have done well from human society, and it is tempting to speculate that they might have followed us throughout history. An English bird watcher in 1891 wrote that kites were tolerated in towns because they were useful as “sanitary officers.” He was referring to red kites, but our Latin enthusiasts would acknowledge them as a close relative, whose behaviour overlaps a lot with Hong Kong’s black kites. On a visit back to Yorkshire this summer I saw a red kite soaring above the town of Harrogate, its silhouette and movement was identical to Hong Kong’s black kites that are much more familiar to me.
Here they are known to skim dead fish off the sea surface, scavenge on offal and road kills, and even pinch meat from open market stalls. They prefer to keep their hunting to situations where the odds are firmly in their favour, seeking sick, young or injured targets. They will also eat small mammals, frogs, lizards and insects. And they have been caught indulging in kleptoparasitism – otherwise known as pinching food from other animals. But I’ve seen smaller kleptoparistes, spangled drongos, hassling kites in return.
They also have a record for straightforward kleptomania, with a fondness for white manmade objects that they use to pad out their nests. Dr Yip has recorded pieces of cloth, plastic bags, workers gloves and clothes hangers in kite nests. I’ve seen a white tea towel hanging from the upper branches of a local tree used by a big kite, by far the most likely agent to have stolen and transported it there.
In Japan I have seen kites dive-bomb people to steal food out of their hands, though I haven’t seen the behaviour in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong environmental expert Dr Martin Williams told me that kites here take up an ecological position that in other places would be occupied by sea gulls. They work the harbour, often following fishing vessels home to port, much as gulls do elsewhere. In most parts of the territory we don’t see many sea gulls in places they would be expected.
The same birds in Australia have been seen eating dead cane toads. The bulky invasive amphibians would generally be run-over and flattened on their stomachs, but the kites have learned to avoid the notorious poison secreted from the back of the toad, by flipping the carcass and exposing the soft flesh of the underbelly. It is interesting to note that while Australia is a vast continent offering endless space for wildlife, kites are generally found in and around towns.
But the opportunists will leave town to follow a plague of locusts, or seek a good bushfire, according to Aussie wildlife watchers. The birds will stalk smoke to find the frontline of a fire, and pick off wildlife fleeing the flames. Australian folklore has it that kites will even pick up burning twigs from one bushfire to start a new one elsewhere, unlikely to be true but a nice expression of respect for kite cunning. In Hong Kong I’ve seen a piece of footage showing large numbers circling over hill fires, stacked high on smoky thermals, scouring the flaming edge of the blaze. There would be no need for kites to light blazes themselves here, most of the frequent hill fires are started accidentally by people burning offerings at gravesides in a practice lamented by firemen, but no-doubt watched in anticipation by gathering crowds of kites.
Kites are unusual for being a gregarious species of raptor, often working together to find food and clear the neighbourhood of unwanted rivals. A European study on their spring migration north noted huge flocking behaviour before crossing water. They mass in the skies of North Africa before making the crossing over the Mediterranean in a dark cloud of raptors.
I ran into hundreds of the large hunters, in an abandoned quarry near my home. They were reluctant to give ground to me, and I realised I was trespassing. They perched on fencing, lined up like avian pirates, shoulders big and hunched, ragged feathers adding to their swaggering profile. Each one sat 60 to 70 cm tall. They would let me come to within 5 metres, before lunging back to keep distance, and I saw their bulk, their claws and their piercing eyes. I turned my head to the sky and saw up to a hundred circling me, studying my movements. Collectively they could have shredded me, but luckily they don’t seem to know that.
|Black kite (photo: Felix Wong borrowed from SCMP Young Post online ed)|
Another time I saw kites guarding their patch against remote-controlled gliders. I was on top of a breezy hill, looking down at the sea and across to the south side of Hong Kong island. Three blokes sat on rocks fiddling their control units, guiding their aerobatic toys on thermals and wind pockets, not without some impressive displays of skill. But high above them there were three kites, lodged in aerial clutch-control against a headwind, hawk-eyes locked on to plastic pretenders invading their airspace. One of the flimsy models wrongly banked into a gust, and crashed out of view into a distant bush, an action accompanied by a mournful groan from its owner. All the while the kites held their position, impassively watching amateur man’s clumsy efforts to master flight by proxy.
Closer to home, I saw local kites harassing a migrant buzzard. I live in a flat at the head of a small valley occupied year round by a family of kites. It is agricultural land half gone to seed in recent decades, as local people abandon traditional farming practices. The result is a mini-haven for birds, crowned at the head of the valley by two magnificent trees whose canopies merge. At any one time there are dozens of birds in those branches, all chattering and foraging like people at a thriving market. The kites nest here and patrol the valley from their prime vantage point.
Yet a buzzard appeared one winter and stayed for several weeks. The kites took pot shots when they could, with mid-air chases and swooping dive-bombs, and the buzzard always backed off. But the plucky visitor kept sneaking back, impervious to punishment meted out by bullying locals. Ultimately the kites didn’t seem that interested in spending a whole lot of energy against the foreign raptor. For now it seemed, there was just about enough room for tense co-existence in the small valley. Other raptors make an occasional visit. A crested goshawk bagged a prime perch overlooking the whole valley for a week or so one year, and another rusty-breasted hawk or falcon that I failed to identify sat on a pole in the middle, scanning for prey.
But flat rentals are lucrative, and landowners are deliberately degrading land zoned for agriculture. Plots of rich plant life disappear overnight as small-time developers dump construction waste, citing loopholes in zoning regulations. It is a well-known strategy in Hong Kong for rezoning land for construction, claiming loss of agricultural value since the land has been trashed. Raise the conservation issued and they’ll tell you that we’ve got plenty of kites, who cares if they go? Well, kites won’t be the ones to go anyway, the buzzards and goshawks and other visitors including those that don’t reveal themselves for an easy ID will be the first ones to be permanently chased off. The kites will likely adapt, look at their dive-bombing cousins in Japan.