Organism of the week #21 – Flying machines

It is frequently, and largely accurately, said that an area of Amazon rainforest the size of Wales is deforested every year. Horrendous though this statistic is, it’s worth remembering that the UK deforested an area at least the size of Wales (including most of the area commonly known as “Wales”) before anyone started keeping notes.

The UK’s track record at maintaining its biodiversity has been – to put it generously – somewhat patchy. We have wiped out a goodly swathe of our large mammals: brown bears, elks, lynxes, and wolves; we drove our blue backed stag beetles to oblivion; and Davall’s Sedge has not been spotted since 1930. One species that was formerly so common in the UK that Shakespeare felt the need to warn theatre-goers about its favoured nest-building materials is the red kite:

My Trafficke is sheetes: when the Kite builds, looke to lesser Linnen.

This beautiful bird was very nearly wiped out in the UK by the early 20th century; only a handful of breeding pairs were left by 1990, in – you guessed it – Wales. Its populations in southern Europe continue to decline, and it is still considered near threatened. However, since the 1990s, the red kite has been the target of a major reintroduction program in the UK, and in a few places they are once again a common sight, soaring on thermals and seeking out rabbits, carrion, and recently washed pillowcases.

A good place to see these impressive birds is the Chilterns, a range of chalk hills just north of London. I’m not generally a charismatic-megafauna kind of biologist, but getting close enough for even this somewhat blurry action shot was thrilling:

Milvus milvus [CC-BY-2.0 Alex Lomas]

Naturally-selected flying machine: red kite (Milvus milvus), unimpressed by the launch of a glider over the top of its head

The kites particularly like to hang around on airfields, presumably on the look-out for tasty pilots. Their blasé attitude to the planes and gliders is amusing if you’re on the ground. It is somewhat less amusing when you meet them in the air, and they remind you in no uncertain terms that their lineage has been flying since before your lineage even took to the trees, let alone came back down from them.

flying_machines [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]A

Human-designed flying machines. Well, one’s a glider, which is to flying what a snake is to tap-dancing, but you know what I mean.

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