Rachel Magdeburg – Milvus milvus: The reCAPTCHA

We are very pleased to be publishing Rachel Magdeburg’s script in full in The Clearing this week. Milvus milvus: The reCAPTCHA was written during a year’s residency in Leeds funded by East Street Arts and considers the long and turbulent history of the red kite in Britain, pushed to near extinction then reintroduced towards the end of the twentieth century. Today they thrive in and around the Chilterns but with some very surprising consequences… Milvus milvus: The reCAPTCHA offers a playful, magic realist, surrealist exploration of rewilding in modern Britain. 


Characters (in order of appearance):

Otus scops
Turdus obscurus
Passenger Pigeon
Red Dragon
River Phoenix Bird
The Red Baron (Wrathchild)
The Conservatories
Doctor Fox
Wild Bore
The Mild Englishman
Trai Anfield
Pomeranian Pom Pom
Der Rotmilan Raptoresearcher
The Missing Lynx
Yellow Green 23
White Pink Kimberly-Clark 15
Orange Blue 9
Mute Swan



Act I Scene I

The Middle Ages, London

Otus scops:

In the Middle, Med-eeeevil, there were skies of Red Kytes, Gleads, wafting above the Miasmas stench. Milvus milvus were common, crowned, widespread and supreme. They cleaned. Protected by a Royal decree. They were the alley sanitisers and the street machines. Scoffing the turned out pottage and bloated lice. They taloned the rats and pecked the mice. These talonted litter pickers worked for free, gorging on offal and entrails for tea. The lazy predators rarely killed, no need for hunting, Red Kyte dustbins reduced human disease.

They were rubbish reliers and vultures; under the stalls in Smithfield’s, in the yard, waste disposal specialists, they refused, collected, kept Britain tidy, were tame Hoovers hovering at large.

Then, they were royally deceased.



Scene II

19th Century, London

Turdus obscurus:

As always a scapegoat was in need. The ‘vermyn’ were blamed for murdering chickens and bleating lambs. But the lambs they ate didn’t bleat. Those sickos only liked dead meat.

Bang bang the farmers didn’t care. Bang bang gamekeepers kept their Red-legged partridge fair. Shooting estates reared their game birds and released, entertaining aristocracy with the shooting of quarry. Milvus milvus became the same as what they ate. Dead. What a mistake, what a carry-on. Bang bang those poachers ignored evidence of carrion.

‘We are not buzzards, you great bastards,’ they cried. But the huntsmen wanted reparations for all the livestock that had died. The Grouse Games were more important reckoned the fitter of the species. Man decided this was ‘natural’ and what survived and what depleted.

1900. The Red Kite population bottlenecked. Five pairs remained, taking refuge in Cymru. Europe only had a few.

Weeee-oo, ee oo, ee oo, ee oo




Scene III

19th Century, Cymru

Passenger Pigeon:

The ‘Boda Wennol,’ as the locals called them, began to disappear. The Valleys survivors were on high aware. The relict’s eggs were pinched by collectors, rocketing in value as preciously rare. Not even poached to eat. Thieves would flog un-incubated fossils to dealers in the streets.

Bounty Hunters shot Red Kites, gutted marrow and stuffed them with cotton wool. Their eyes were glazed with teddy bear stares and their plumage caked in tanning goo. They were mounted statically on logs. Their feathers faded in the light. Their tarsus wired and creaked with brittleness. Their wings poised mid-flight.

No Red Kites remained across English vistas. Extinct. No ‘Chicken-Hawks’ in Scotland. Extirpated. Exterminated. With Great Auk-wardness, I anticipated meeting them up here.

[A harp sounds]

They were always playing dead.



Act II Scene I

1903, Cymru

Red Dragon:

The guilt crept in.

The nests became guarded in Wales with high-security surveillance. The Army were drafted in. I breathed fire on intruders. Yet still the Welsh Red Kite population didn’t grow or spread. It was too damp. The rest of Europe was scarcely better. Habits and habitats had changed. New agricultural methods meant less uncultivated land, increase in afforestation meant the 5 ft winged Milvus milvus couldn’t land.



Scene II

1949, Westminster, London

River Phoenix Bird:

Shame. Remorse. Regret. Looking up, cries of ‘what have we done?’ The Wing Collared Williams’ met. Commissions, Councils, Committees. They took it I N T E R N A T I O N A L. They all winced. They felt obliged to put things right: ‘let us get Milvus milvus back from the brink and re-watch their gliding flight.’




Scene III

1984, Tring, Herfordshire

The Red Baron (Wrathchild):

Long consultations were had. The Guidelines for Reintroduction were read and re-read. A license application was made. Requirements were fully met. Criteria was criss-cross-spot-checked. Elected members all said ‘yes’. Evidence, ticked. Impact, good. Feasibility, unanimous. Agreed. It was deduced that no threat persisted anymore for Milvus milvus species. Persecution was in the past. Things had changed. The incoming birds would almost be genetically the same. Where those coverts came from, nothing would change. Red Kites were native to the UK. They were indigenous fauna, essential to the active culture bio pot. They were top of the food chain, bottom feeders for Twitchers to spot. They were globally threatened, we had to intervene. Red Kites could just slip back in.


Plus, how spectacular to restore them? The publicity. The fame. We’ll lure in cash cow tourists on eco trains. Bird safaris will be arranged. We’ll get sponsored with large sums. Water companies will flood us with funds. Local areas will thrive, as an iconic apex species on the precipice will survive! The headlines will chant ‘Enraptured by the Raptors: A Bird of Prey was Seen.’ Cue applause. We’ll get promoted, Knighted, praisers will buckle their rears and bend down on all fours. We’ll feature on the New Year’s Honours List. We’ll replace our wives with cooing models and file for divorce. Yes, yes, the White-tailed eagle was first, but England also needs a keystone gizzard to pause the chasing hearse.

[Enter The Conservatories]

It was a moral responsibility. We needed to put things right. Red Kites were supposed to be here, their aboriginal right. We could invest in the humble bumblebee (bit titchy) but a big sexy Bird of Prey will highlight British Conservation [nods to The Conservatories] and bolster diversity. The Red Kites could resolve overflowing landfill sites?

Meetings. Papers. Assessments. Documents. Reports. The Conservatories found some Red Kites similar to the native ones, taxonomically sound. An assisted translocation holiday was planned. To remedy the grossness of the past, to repair, a trip to Navarra, Spain was booked, to replenish, relocate and reintroduce the Red Kite to the UK.

The Conservatories:

The eventual aim was to ensure that the Red Kite breeding population expanded to colonise all suitable habitat. We’ll welcome them land.





Scene IV

1987, Gigrin Farm, Feeding Station, Cymru

Doctor Fox:

I thought I would craftily help the plan, so instead of abducting Red Kites from Aragon, Navarra or Castilla y León that were genetically varied, I would use autochthonous Welsh eggs that were struggling to hatch and trick a surrogate mother to brood on the batch. Genius.

I artificially incubated Welsh eggs, cross-fostering the clutch to keep them warm. I would have sat on them myself, but Lorenz’s imprinting would suggest I’d find nestlings on my lawn.

However, it was impossible to apply this method for the entire operation. Restocking wasn’t an option. Instead, I experimented with adoption, transgenic contortion, insemination, embryo transfer, DNA, cloning. I resurrected the Pyrenean ibex for 7 minutes and fertilised future omens.



Scene V

1989, Navarra, Spain

Wild Bore:

The birds The Conservatories snatched were aged 5 weeks old. Milano real juveniles and soon to be Spanish exiles. ¡Hasta luego! to mamá y papá.

The birds were packed and crammed in crates like tins of Portuguese sardines. They were quarantined. Crushed cargo in the aircraft hold. No in-flight meal from British Airways, ‘Assisting Nature Conservation.’ They were vaccinated on arrival at Heathrow. Customs was hell. The queues. They were manhandled, yellow wing-tagged and chipped, fondled with rubber gloves, screened, scanned and quizzed. They didn’t know where they were going. There was no interpreter, nor translation. They were detained for days in the bowels of bureaucratic immigration.

They arrived in Stokenchurch, the Chilterns. Where? They spent 8 weeks in captivity. Four Red Kites to one aviary section, squabbling for rancid muntjac.

These aliens were far from the sun, their Cousin Black Kites, chorizo scraps and ibérico jamón. Once released, they danced in thermals to keep warm.

Food was still left outside the coops for a month. Milvus milvus returned to find manky Myxomatosis bits and leathery moles. So instead they went hunting for huevos revueltos, fajitas and frijoles.

The displaced Red Kites nabbed from Sweden were forced onto RAF Kinloss and deported to the Black Isle, farmland of the Scots. Poor sods. Some tried to leave, seeking asylum and escape, one managed to take refuge in Iceland, others smuggled warning messages to the Verde Cape.

[All characters yawn offstage]


red kite wings


Act III Scene I

1993, M40 Flyover


The reintroduced Red Kite foreigners, reluctant expats, grew rapidly. They bred and bred and bred. They copulated in beech woods, communal roosts, astride the privet hedge. They cloacal kissed along the motorway, on top of Ladbrokes, they vögeln-ed on the library fence. They mated with their brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, became a superior race of inbreds. Even when knackered, they bred. Their nests were strewn with Ann Summer’s lingerie, to fork-play the males in the mood and get them twiggy in their beds.



Scene II

1997, Cryers Hill, Buckinghamshire


Despite the shouts of ‘go back to where you are from’ (usual hysteria over jobs) the Red Kites became strong. Superior. In the Chilterns, after too many pints, drivers would skid their Land Rovers over all manner of delights. The Road Kill menu spoilt Milvus milvus rotten. Their guts coped with Salmonella and E. coli bacteria and their crops bulged, stuffed full of mangled pheasants chewed and dissolved.

Glis glis who awoke from their long slumber, wobbled dreamily, yawning onto the hard shoulder. These fat dormice were a tender treat, plump and juicier than a woodpigeon’s crippled feet.

The Red Kites spread and spread and spread. Their range stretched for miles. They saturated the skies. They colonised. The Conservatories decided to reintroduce them to new lowlands. It was a success.

This time however, the Red Kites did not object. They went willingly to Rockingham to star on CCTV, obediently to West Yorkshire and Gateshead’s Derwent Valley. Milvus milvus had decided to hook The Conservatories in a game, of product monopoly, corporate chains, business takeovers, commercial gain.



Scene III

1999, Harewood House & Estate, West Yorkshire

The Mild Englishman:

Those Red Kite opportunists were brought to Harewood in brand new 4 x 4s, from Christmas Common in the Chiltern Hills. They arrived with plans and maps and strange tools. Lord knows what for? They foraged in the fiefdom becoming quite a visitor lure. I watched them as I sipped my Earl Grey from the Palladian Terrace Café. Careful not to chip the Sèvres porcelain.

Milvus milvus circled above Turner’s landscape, seemingly on reconnaissance flights. They enjoyed Capability Brown’s gardens, swooping down for melted choc ice. They pouted for photos, the birding paparazzi snapped, they performed mid-air trickery, mocked fights, forged sparring, played cheeky chase and catch.

I would drink half a mild of Samuel Smiths in the Harewood Arms (before all the pubs got renamed), after watching cricket in the grounds. Sometimes there would be a motor show or the Countess would play Baroque opera on the analogue radio.

Harewood Estate security seemed a bit over zealous, perhaps paranoid for the Chippendale? Those birds could pirate anything. The priceless works of Art and first editions in the library could feed their birdbrains with knowledge I suppose, although it seemed unlikely.

Thinking of it now, I did see one Red Kite peering through the window, eagle-eyed at Lysaght’s ‘The Book of Birds,’ maybe hoping to indulge in those narcissistic words?

Well, it turns out the Red Kites were planning to destroy the ornate fans belonging to the Princess. Superb artisanship, radiating finesse, in tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl and lace, with ostrich, peacock and egret feathers. Of course Milvus milvus objected to these objets d’art and sunk them in Eccup reservoir.

Another source of tension were the owls collected by the Earl. He was President of Leeds United Football Club, but Milvus milvus feared those big eyed, head swiveling freaks getting all the admiration. So they took precautions and fleeced the entire collection, sold them at Sotheby’s, using the library books as guides in DIY auction.

[Otus scops shrieks offstage]


Rachel's Yogurt


Scene IV

2004, Whickham, Gateshead

Trai Anfield:

The forecast wasn’t good.

Milvus milvus were still persecuted, exterminated. Nothing had changed. Poisoned baits on carcasses were laid. Pesticides carelessly sprinkled. Post-mortems showed lethal doses of toxicade: Alphachloralose, Strychnine, Fenthion and Mevinphos. Rodenticides were sloshed and spilt. Accidental secondary killing it was claimed for other pests. The shootings were no accidents. The Wildlife Incident Investigation team led raids. But shot bodies were removed. Fatal cocktails hidden. All evidence was gotten ridden. Milvus milvus fell from the sky, a hailstorm of scavengers, for scavengers to try. Why?



Scene V

2012, Black Isle, Scotland

Pomeranian Pom Pom:

Milvus milvus did consume the deceased and loiter at the abattoir. They exploited carcasses and corpses. They also preyed on the living. I had to move swiftly to prove I was free of rigor mortis. They flittered above my head inhaling and checking for signs of breath. I wanted to return to Pomerania before they mistook my short-legged sluggishness for the creeping in of death.

MPs were lobbied to act. Dog owners conducted petitions. Forums were created on the net. Radio programmes riled up this turning point as the mascot of Conservation was no longer a trophy for celebration. Red Kites lived too long. There was no ecological benefit. They left half mangled sheep scrota in maggot-infested nests. They wouldn’t stop their syrinx whining for one minute’s rest. And lastly, they started moving to the cities, into Newcastle, over Leeds. Their numbers had to recede.



Scene VI

2013, Hakel Forest, Germany

Der Rotmilan Raptoresearcher:

It had been expensive to reintroduce Red Kites to the UK. Then there was the Credit Crunch. Luckily we already had der Rotmilan in Germany and a robust deficit plan. In England, to keep the shopping bills trim Milvus milvus became a form of free meat, free lunch. Red Kite burgers, kebabs and Milvus milvus in a tin. Whole families of Red Kites were triple cooked, sautéed, wings reduced at Lidl. They were braised on Master Chef demos, plucked breasts charred on the griddle.



Act IV Scene I

2014, Scottish Highlands

The Missing Lynx:

Milvus milvus planned revenge for this new insult, attack. Despite being fully protected by some meaningless 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.

The Conservatories presumed the distribution in the Western Palearctic was shrinking. Instead, flocks of Milvus milvus were secretly immigrating. Cousin Black Kites from Morocco became UK summer visitors and (despite their migraines) mated and mongrelled with their relatives to keep it in the genus. The Cape Verde Kite Hybrids also crossed the border carrying Avian Flu in their hand luggage, reprisal for the Diaspora.




Scene II

2015, High Wycombe, the Chilterns

Yellow Green 23:

When the first brood of us Red Kites arrived in High Wycombe, they were strapped with altimeters and antennas on their backs. The Conservatories tracked their routines and flight paths, monitored their territories, longitudes and latitudes charted and mapped. They plotted their geo-locations systematically and surveyed them telemetrically.

Thanks to the evolution of technology, the radio trackers adapted and fused with our physiology. We grew GPS biologically. We had KiwiSat 303 Transmitters when hatched. We were automaton, mutating and guided through in-wing-built Sat Nav. We faked it on BirdCam, simulated stupidity, broadcast ‘normal’ avian behaviour and cranked up the duplicity. We tipped the mercury on our devices and pretended to be dead. The radio waves flatlined. We triggered diversions and misdirected signs.

We caused distractions and ploys; we dressed mechanical spy drones in feathered costumes. We hired our neighbour buzzards as body doubles and decoys. We disguised ourselves as unmanned aerial vehicles to espionage overland. We schemed, scammed and planned. We were the conquistadors again. It was time to make atonement for the interference of Man.




Scene III

2017, @Rockingham, Northamptonshire

White Pink Kimberly-Clark 15:

We started businesses. MailChimped press releases. We orchestrated publicity stunts. We milked sympathy for being hunted. We were PR savvy. Led a smear campaign. We vectored the Red Kite brand, designed the concept and franchised England. We christened roads, a housing association, renamed pubs (got rid of all those Eagle Taverns, White Swans), we sponsored football clubs. We logoed driving schools, a waste management service (our specialty) and steered a tweeting media circus. We set up B2B marketing, telesales, launched the 45/46 Red Kite bus, we brewed our own ruby ales, we changed the Key Stage syllabus. We trademarked golf stores, redesigned school uniforms, funded half marathons, car rallies, health walks and of course got Tesco on board. Our taglines were everywhere and as our stocks soared, the FTSE and Dow Jones, the Nikkei and NASDAQ crashed through the market floor.

We designed a high-speed network to rip through the English fields, providing us with plentiful rail-kill, as convenience ready meals. HS2 would be our pantry and screw the locals with their trifling over spoilt country, carbon emissions, scorched ecosystems, up yours landowners with your nostalgic traditions.



Scene IV

2020, Emmerdale, West Yorkshire

Orange Blue 9:

We reverted EU farming regs on the disposal of animal remains. We lifted the lids on slaughterhouses, unburied stiffs, picnicked on cadavers openly in fields. We stuck mobster corvids behind bars and pickled grouse in whisky jars.

Our entrepreneurialism meant we now governed every UK industry sector and every agro-techno hectare. Universities preached the Post-Milvus milvus Lecture. We rewrote graduate degrees, radicalised the course structure, Conservation modules were amended, workshops renamed. The research project on Reintroduction was suspended.

Finally, we bought exclusive rights to ‘Emmerdale.’ We were the cast and produced it. We shifted the location, twisted characters and plot. We televised episodes on every channel, every device, to excruciate, 24 hours every day, all prime time slots, omnibus, on catch up, until we drove The Conservatories to resignation and voluntary emigration.

Brown bears, beavers and bison are now creating their own returning Apps. The ideal candidate for The Conservatories’ position is via the wolf coming back.

[Enter Mute Swan]

Mute Swan:

I have little to say about this.





Rachel Magdeburg is a visual artist based in Gateshead. Milvus Milvus: The reCAPTURE was performed at the interdisciplinary conference  ‘Landscape, Wilderness and The Wild’ at the University of Newcastle in March 2015.

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April 8, 2015 at 12:21 am


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