Every day the stories of raptors being injured or killed because of lead in fishing and hunting equipment or rat poisons lands on my desk. Each wildlife rehabilitation clinic in Canada and the United States has story after story of very ill or dying raptors, hundreds at each clinic. Imagine. The United States Department of Fish and Wildlife Services keeps records of the reported deaths. That is, however, just the tip of the so-called iceberg. Raptors in urban centres, such as New York City disappear – one day they are taking care of eyases and the next day they are gone. Carcasses are found on the roofs of buildings, on the streets where someone picks them up and places them in the garbage, or in light wells. The problem of rodenticide or lead poisoning is not limited to North America. It is a global problem that is often extremely complex.
In Taiwan, the Black Kites were disappearing. Due the efforts of academics and students from Taiwan’s Pingtung University of Science and Technology, conservation groups such as the Keelung Wild Bird Society, as well as individuals such as Shen Chen-Chung, the population of Black Kites on this densely populated island are now returning.
Black kites are medium-sized raptors but with a wingspan of a Western Osprey, 150 cm or 5 feet. Adults weigh on average 550 grams or 1.2 pounds. They are 47 to 60 cm long (or 18.5 to 24 inches). These dark coloured birds have lighter plumage on their head and neck. Their flight feathers are black with some cross bars while the body is rather striated. They have a yellow cere and gape; their bill is totally black. Their legs are yellow with black talons. The females are, as in other raptors, larger than the males. Like Red Tail Hawks, the Black Kite lives to soar, rising high on the thermals in the air.
In the image below you can see the gape and the cere that are yellow above the black beak.
Black kites breed once a year. The average clutch is two to three eggs but as few as one and as many as five eggs have been seen. Incubation of eggs to hatching is twenty-eight to thirty-two days. Days to fledging is approximately forty-two to fifty-six.
Black Kites are opportunistic feeders. In Taiwan, they eat a lot of grasshoppers, lizards, and snakes as well as rats, chickens, and carrion. They are scavengers and often take food from people eating at restaurants or having picnics. They are very susceptible to pesticides and it was pesticides that were killing them.
In order to combat the problem of the Black Kite deaths and to try and rebuild the populations of these much admired raptors, citizen birding groups worked with the Raptor Research Group of Taiwan. They set up a FB group to generate observations of poisonings of the Black Kite. They collated those results. One of the things that they discovered is that most of the Black Kite deaths took place near farms were rice and adzuki beans were grown as well as airports. The dead birds were collected for testing. The birds tested positive for Carbofuran poisoning. Carbofuran is one of the most toxic pesticides used to kill insects in potato, soybean, and corn crops. It is sprayed on the fields to kill insects which, in turn, were eaten by the Black Kites. The birds also had residues of SGAR brodifacoum and SGARs bromodialone and flocoumafen in their bodies. Each of these is an anti-coagulant meaning that the blood will not clot. The poisons are put out to kill rats but the rats do not die instantly. They begin to have internal bleeding that makes them sluggish. As a result, they are easy prey for the raptors who suffer a very painful secondary death.
Because of the efforts of the students, academics, and citizen birders, the Taiwanese government ended the use of Carbofuran in 2015. There are still rodenticides available to local farmers but their potency has been quite diluted, only 3%. The government has also set about to educate farmers on the deaths of birds due to pesticides as well as new farming techniques leading to the growth and sales of environmentally friendly adzuki beans. As a result, the number of Black Kite nests are growing from less than 300 to 709 in 2020.
At the same time that the government was educating the farmers, a film, Fly, Kite, Fly was released in 2015 detailing the two decades that Shen Chen-Chung spent documenting the Black Kite and its demise and return. Every effort, it is hoped, will improve the lives of the beloved birds.
The image below shows a female Black Kite feeding her two chicks. The nest is in a hillside cemetery in Taiwan. The eldest chick hatched on 3 March with the youngest believed to have hatched on 6 March. The chicks were not even two weeks old when a fire ravished the cemetery below their nest. The cameras were burned and no one knew the fate of the two chicks in the nest. There was nothing for anyone to do but wait to see if the chicks survived and, if so, to see if the parents would return to the nest to care for them. When the fire cooled, late the following day, the chicks were discovered alive. And both of their parents were feeding them! Because they survived the fire, the chicks were named Pudding and Brulee after the popular French flaming dessert, Creme Brulee. The mother is Blanche because she brought many white flowers to the nest and the male is Brownie for the colour of their plumage.
The nest is covered with some ash making it appear white and powdery.
If you would like to watch this nest, here is the link:
The efforts of these groups and individuals are to be applauded and copied. It is time that North American banned the use of lead in both hunting and fishing equipment and rodenticides. Taiwan has shown that it can be done.
Thank you so much for joining me today in Bird World. I hope that you will take a look at this family of beautiful Black Kites.
Thank you to Black Kite Nest Cam Live in Taiwan. That is where I took my scaps. Information on the citizen efforts comes from several articles in The Taiwan Times.