I am walking down an ancient country lane in south Wales, it is summer, the banks are humming with pollen and bees, the trees are dark green like cooked spinach, swallows twitter over the fields beyond the hedge and the air is a comfortable temperature. I reach a metal gate that leads into a field; leaning against it I stop to appreciate the view of rolling pastures before me, contemplating the contemplative cows that chew cud with such leisure. I then hear a high-pitched wail and raising my head I am greatly taken aback by two seemingly enormous birds, wheeling in a spiral of rising warm air that is invisible to me but quite solid to them. They are clearly Red Kites, much larger than I had anticipated and boldly patterned; their long fingered wings grope the firmament for extra lift as they expertly swivel their famously notched tails to keep balance. With pale heads, fiery-orange tails, black, white and brown wings and a great bulk; these birds certainly impress.
This was my first ever encounter with this species, years ago now, it is something that can be experienced across much of central and southern England (and increasingly further north) – these raptors are back with a vengeance and with any luck are here to stay. Red Kites are one of those species that remind you why you got into birding; every sighting is an event packed with jaw-dropping beauty and awe. This was once more true than it is now, for Kites were once reduced to a few Welsh pairs in the whole of Britain, making them a proper rarity to be twitched and jealously protected. The Kite has now come full circle; from being a bird so common people had to kick them out of the way as they walked down a London street, then plummeting to the edge of extinction, to now rising back up like a phoenix to rule our skies and feast on our road-kill. I should mention that this expansion is not entirely under its own steam; multiple re-introductions by wildlife charities around the country established the new populations – though the rapidity with which it has spread is its own success.
The Red Kite has always been an amazing looking bird, but was it more attractive when it was rare than it is now? Birders may still enjoy seeing them, taking the odd picture and so on, but they don’t stare at them for hours on end as they once would have done when only a handful still existed. This is a commonly recorded phenomenon, that when a species is rare or even at the brink of extinction we humans are inclined to remark upon it as a beautiful thing; yet many common species we see every day are hardly given a glance despite possessing strikingly good looks (take the Titmice or crows or thrushes or pigeons as examples). There are also undeniably some dull-looking rare species out there; such as the willow tit, spotted flycatcher, tree pipit, marsh warbler, the list of brownish birds goes on. But my point is that the perceived beauty of a bird (or any organism) can be prone to fluctuate depending on how scarce it is.
Take gulls for instance, in Britain we occasionally host vagrant gull species from distant lands such as Ring-billed, Yellow-legged or Caspian gulls. These are rare visitors here so many birders often make a fuss over them; I have seen photos online of immature muddy-brown gulls that are apparently a rare species and people are fawning over it with words such as ‘awesome’ or ‘lovely’ or ‘smashing’. I have nothing against gulls, I think many of our gull species very smart and attractive, but crooning over obscure species that look just like Herring gulls simply because it is unusual is beyond my understanding. Do these people make the same compliments to immature Lesser Black-Backed gulls? No, but then those are common residents.
Perhaps this is down to habituation; that is that birds we see every day, despite having colourful or strikingly patterned plumage, are not seen as attractive because we have grown so used to them – their plumage has become ‘normal’. On the other hand, birds we see very infrequently have not become seared in our minds, so when we come across these species their colours and patterns are almost like new to us – so we react more positively to it than perhaps it really deserves. Or perhaps it is because when we see a true rarity we know that this might be the last time we ever see one, so we savour its appearance, no matter how dull, so that we can remember it when it is gone. This is generalising though; there really are gorgeous birds that are rare and boring grey ones that are common. What do you think?