It’s easy to imagine that red kites are absolutely everywhere in this part of the world. By appearance and perception they are: they occupy higher sightlines than we do. If a kite is flying nearby, soon enough it drifts into view. This masks their true rarity, for whilst kite populations are undoubtedly higher than they were (not difficult from a starting point of zero) the current Berkshire breeding population is probably in the hundreds only. By contrast, there are over 800,000 of us just in this little county (1,000 humans per red kite!) yet sometimes it is remarkable how few people are visible at any particular time. Even scanning across a Reading street from the top deck of a bus on my commute home I often see only a handful of people actually out and about (occupants of cars don’t count).
Human beings are dwarfed by our own dwellings and transport contraptions. We hunch down in a maze that is mostly of our own making, but aren’t we supposed to have a deep-seated longing to fly with the birds? Perhaps there’s still some evidence we do. A few weeks ago I drove past Watership Down in Hampshire and noticed a fair number of people out flying kites. It’s been many years since I have flown one, but I recall how the tug of that thin nylon string gives just a hint at what it feels like to ride the wind. Flying kites in high places like the Downs offers not just a better chance of favourable winds but a vantage point that might just let us into the secret of what the kite sees.
And what does the kite see? Their colour vision is not dissimilar to ours, true enough, but image is only a part of the picture. Perception is what counts. Where we see an abstract mosaic of features that might be considered beautiful – fields, copses, villages, woods – is a kite more likely to process that landscape in terms of what it might offer by way of food, shelter or danger? Or does that over-emphasise the gap between species? It’s entirely possible that our aesthetic judgement of a landscape has some evolutionary underpinning in terms of searching for resources. In the same way, I suspect the kites know more about joy than we give them credit for. Whatever is happening when a red kite’s neurons fire, I reckon it’s doing a better job of being fully alive than I am.