Dead in their nest ... red kite and her chicks killed by poisoners
Three kites have been found dead in Co Down following a suspected poisoning incident.
A female red kite was found slumped in her nest in Katesbridge along with her two dead chicks.
The authorities were alerted by a local resident who had been watching the nest from her house and was worried that something had happened to the female.
The birds have been recovered by members of the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group (NIRSG) and the PSNI and submitted for a post-mortem and toxicology testing.
This is the latest in a series of illegal poisonings apparently targeting Northern Ireland's tiny red kite population. Red kites were re-introduced here between 2008 and 2010 after having been persecuted to extinction in the north of the island 200 years ago.
Last year alone six dead red kites were found in Northern Ireland, five of which were confirmed to have been poisoned.
Tests revealed that two had been poisoned with the insecticide Carbofuran and three with Alphachloralose, a poison normally used to kill rodents. One of the birds was too decomposed for analysis but was found in the same geographical area as three of the others.
Adam McClure, red kite officer for the RSPB, said: "While we can't say for certain until we have the results of the post-mortem, we strongly suspect that this bird and her chicks fell victim to poisoning.
"All birds of prey are protected under the law, but unfortunately this doesn't always mean that they are safe from poison.
"They are vulnerable to poisoned bait left out with the intention of controlling foxes and crows. However, this is an illegal practice as it is indiscriminate and can affect not only scavenging birds like red kites, but also pets, livestock and humans."
Red kites became extinct in Ireland in the 18th century, but in 2008 the RSPB, along with project partners the Golden Eagle Trust and Welsh Kite Trust, began a re-introduction project that has been successful in encouraging the birds to breed here once again.
With only around 10 breeding pairs in Northern Ireland, every death is a blow and may have serious consequences for the fragile population, Mr McClure said.
"Alongside landowners in south Down, and our funders NI Electricity, RES Ltd and local councils Newry and Mourne, Down and Banbridge through Ulster Wildlife Landfill funding, we have worked hard to create a home for red kites in Northern Ireland over the last six years, so it is devastating when we lose any of them," he said.
Anyone with information about the deaths of the birds is asked to contact the PSNI on 101 or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
Information on the safe use of rodenticides is available by calling RSPB NI on 9049 1547.
The RSPB successfully released 80 red kites into our skies between 2008 and 2010. The species was persecuted to extinction in the north of Ireland more than 200 years ago. The birds have become a familiar sight in the skies of south Down. The magnificently graceful bird of prey is unmistakable with its reddish-brown body, angled wings and deeply forked tail.