This amazing article was unearthed in the Cornwall archives by Sue one of our chough volunteers. First time I have read this beautifully written account; the Rev Malan obviously knew his choughs and the perils they were facing. I wonder who/where ’T’ was.
By the Rev. A. H. MALAN, MA.
From the RIC Journal 1890/1
It is much, to be feared that future generations will find it an extremely difficult thing to come across these interesting birds in the county from which they take their name. Considering their former plenitude, their present scarcity is not an altogether easy matter to account for. Several reasons have been suggested: —
(I). Jackdaws swarming round the cliffs, harrying and usurping their nesting places.
(2). Trapping and shooting in former days.
(3). Robbing nests, and taking young and eggs. All of these have doubtless contributed to reduce their ranks. But I venture, in connection .with them, to suggest another reason; —
(4). In and in breeding. Not being migratory birds in the general sense of the word (though all birds are migratory to a certain extent), it stands to reason that being restricted to the cliffs, and not being found in the inland districts of Cornwall or Devon, any strolling gunner would know just where to find them, and any egg-collector would know where to seek for eggs ; and that as their colonies became thinned by these means, there would be fewer opportunities for the survivors to find fresh alliances in the way of mates. The introduction of fresh blood would therefore be highly desirable; and this I have endeavoured to bring about. For (through the introduction of that well known ornithologist, Lord Lilford), the genial manager of some zinc mines, in the mountains of Spain, J. P. Woods, Esq., F.Z.S.,most kindly volunteered, a few years since, to obtain for me “any number of red-legged Choughs, entirely free of cost,” to turn loose on our Cornish cliffs. And indeed his promise was so far fulfilled, that he caused some adult specimens to be caught by the miners • and then (as these proved difficult to keep alive), had several nestlings reared, and held them in readiness, awaiting a favourable chance to send them over; but being called away on business to Morocco, they all perished in his absence, through neglect of some assistant. Since then, Mr. Woods having removed down to the coast, has been no longer on the spot to superintend their capture among the mountains of Santander ; but when he last wrote, he assured me his promise still remained in force, though he was unable to appoint a time when it would be discharged.*
The South Coast of Cornwall is now entirely deserted by Choughs, and the only remaining colonies are found at intervals on the side facing the Atlantic ; the greater proportion of the birds being (most unfortunately) met with in the immediate neighbourhood of T , where several young ones are annually taken, and find ready purchasers among the summer tourists. Being remonstrated with, and advised to leave at least two young ones in every nest which he rifled, so that the future existence of these birds may not be seriously jeopardised, a cliff man propounded this conundrum: —”The last man who took Cornish daws, was killed over cliff twenty-five years ago; how is it that, being left undisturbed all those years, they have not increased ?” The answer to which was, of course, that if they had been left undisturbed (which is open to extreme doubt), though they might not have increased in that particular district, yet the progeny would form fresh colonies elsewhere.
Attention to the Wild Birds’ Preservation Act was forcibly drawn, a year or two ago, by placards being posted in and about the village of T ; the consequence of which has been that the cliffmen are rather shy of appearing to possess young birds before the 1st of August; but as this Act does not prohibit the taking of eggs, (Choughs’ eggs always fetch a good price), it is not so useful as it might well be ; and moreover, on reading the Act in question, the cliffmen determined to circumvent it, by taking the eggs, hatching them under pigeons, and then rearing the young by hand. Whether they have done this is unknown; but even if not, they still contrive to obtain fledged nestlings, by, if not before the first of August. It is a thousand pities that any passer-by who happens to be in Cornwall, and deems it a fine thing to possess a Cornish Chough, should be able to buy these birds in this way ; for it is extremely -unlikely that the purchasers are familiar with their ways ; and the chances are that the birds will be confined in some aviary, or else, with clipped wings, permitted to mope away a few months’ miserable existence, in a backyard or about the garden of their owner, and then terminate their lives before their first year is expired. And therefore it is fortunate that some of the nests about T are situated in such inaccessible spots, that they are beyond the reach of the most’ fool-hardy and experienced climber, even though let down from above by ropes.
The free wild temperament of Choughs will not brook any confinement, but must have absolute liberty, and full exercise for their wings. If this is not the case, they generally get an attack of asthma, which usually proves fatal, in their first year. One of my present birds had a bad attack of that ailment, several years ago ; when it was young, induced by the foolish clipping of one wing ; and it was only brought through its illness by a liberal use of curry-powder with its food, a known remedy for trained falcons, when suffering from affections of the throat. To shelter it from the damp outside air, this bird was permitted to sleep during its first winter, in my study ; and though at liberty to choose any spot, it used invariably to select a corner of the mantelpiece, close to the large wheel of a cage of Harvest mice : which wheel, being busy at work most of the night, and generally containing a piece of almond, or small fragment of biscuit, might well, by its noise, have been supposed to interfere with the slumbers of the invalid, but apparently did not. In time the attack was thrown off, and then, with every pinion perfect, the bird began to enjoy life; it has never had a trace of any sickness since, and it is now in the most robust health. It should be mentioned, in passing, as an interesting thing, that this same bird subsequently contrived to break off the tip of its upper mandible (by no means wonderful, considering that a chough must always be pecking at something, the harder the material the better) ; and for a long while the opposite mandible overlapped the broken one, so that the beak did not present a uniform point, but somewhat faintly resembled that of a cross-bill. However the bird managed to wear down the longer one, and now the two mandibles meet perfectly, and are as right and true as though ground together on a grinding-stone. This rather militates against the theory that a bird with a broken beak is unable to rectify matters ; but probably the material of which beaks are composed, varies much with the nature of the work required from them, and so one bird may be able to wear down the overlapping part of a broken bill while the opposite part is renewing itself by growth, though another bird may not be able to do the same thing.
Everyone has seen a chough, if only in a museum; and therefore knows the beautiful glossy black of the adult plumage, the long wings crossed over the back and extending beyond the squared tail, the long slender red legs and the brilliant red curved bill. It is perhaps needless to remark that the usual museum attitude is eminently unlike that generally assumed in real life. The beak and legs of the birds of the year are tawny orange; and do not assume the sealing wax red colour until after their first moult. But only those who have kept them know their marvellous docility. You may train a falcon, whether eyass or haggard, [i.e., young bird or wild-caught adult] to sit on your wrist, and come down to the lure, with infinite labour; but to a chough brought up from the nest, it comes quite natural to be at one moment flying high in air — it may be, hotly pursued by a party of rooks, and leading them a merry dance, since being long winged birds, choughs hold the rooks, crows, and jackdaws very cheap, inasmuch as these baser creatures can never come near enough to injure them — and the next, to come in at the open window, alight on the table, or jump on one’s knee, and sit there any length of time, absolutely still, while its head and back are stroked with the hand, or a pen : combining the complete confidence of a cat or a dog, with the wild freedom of the swallow. No other bird with which I am acquainted, thus unites the perfection of tameness with the limitless impetuosity of unreclaimed nature. It is a pretty sight when walking a mile or two away from home, to hear the clear ringing call, and see two black specks in the sky, come down in long undulating sweeps, with wings alternately closed and spread, and alight at your feet, or perch on a gate, and follow at your bidding- ; and then, if startled by a stranger, to see them fly off with a nervous scream, as though they had never seen a human being before !
Living thus, and at liberty by day, of course these birds will support themselves, finding their natural food in the way of small beetles, woodlice, earwigs, centipedes, &c. ; but wholly refusing slugs, worms, and snails. Like hawks, and owls, and crows, they throw up casts of the indigestible carapaces of the beetles, &c. A very favourite feast are grubs of the crane-fly, which they extract from the grass in spring; first picking at some selected spot, and probing with closed bill to make a hole (walking round the while, and working with a twisting motion until the hole is large enough to admit the beak), and then nipping the grub, which appears to be beneath at the exact distance of two inches from the surface. It is surprising the number of grubs which will thus be secured in a small patch of newly mown lawn. The only supplementary food supplied them, consists of some scraps of meat, mixed with bread, potatoes, and gravy, and the whole chopped finely ; and this is more than they often care to pick at, though it serves as a kind of lure to “slock” them into their shed at night, and thereby prevent their becoming completely insubordinate. They have three notes, (a) the usual call note, clear and ringing, and perfectly distinct from that of a jackdaw; (b) the cry of alarm, which is the same sound as the former only pitched in a higher key, emitted in rapid succession when a hawk is viewed above head, or when the chough is startled by a sudden noise; (c) a harsh, chiding, repeated sound, as of an animal in some pain, made use of when a rat or cat is perceived skulking in the grounds, or when one of the choughs is seized by the hand, and another resents the insult. Always noisy, always active, in boisterous spirits, they have such exuberant energy that frequent sham fights, perilously near the real thing, are wont to take place ; occasionally when feeding, or walking together, one will suddenly turn on his back and put himself in fighting trim, while his opponent sets to and attacks him, with beak and deliberate grip of claw, and with every evidence of determined hostility: the next instant they fly away in perfect harmony, and are always inseparable companions. But how it is that their eyes escape injury when at the sparring matches is truly remarkable. Like other birds at roosting time they become especially quarrelsome, making a tremendous noise ; and if the friendly hand be then put near them, with hissing lunges of disapproval, heads down, tails up, they thrust and lunge as though they had never suffered the same hand to stroke or caress them before. At all times they are sensitive creatures with very highly-strung nerves; and the smallest occurrence out of the common startles them immoderate]y.They are said not to perch on trees. This is not correct; they frequently do so on bare exposed branches; and occasionally join the rooks on the summits of the tall elms; but only for a second or two, preferring the ridge of the roof, or the coping of of a wall, or other stone support on which to rest their feet.
I am not aware that Cornish choughs have ever bred in semi-captivity. The male is much larger and stronger than the female; the plumage is identical in both sexes. My own birds have attempted nesting every year, but have never laid eggs to my knowledge ; though the yellow-billed variety (Pyrrochorax Alpinus), has certainly nested more than once in the aviaries at Lilford. ”And are you not afraid of their being shot, as they go so far afield?” is a question often asked. Well one is, extremely so; and it is surprising that such a fate has never befallen them. It speaks much for the goodwill and forbearance of the parish sportsmen that they have never, — say when these birds have been feeding with rooks in the parish or plow, had a shot at them: of course any stranger seeing birds fly by him, such as he had never seen before, might naturally try to secure them, and fire at them with that end in view, without any blame attaching to the action : when one hears of their being seen on the moors, and of persons enquiring what birds they are, one trembles for their safety : and for all one knows, they may have had many a hair-breadth escape. Yet if such should be their fate, it would be satisfactory to feel that they had enjoyed life to the full, and known no cares ; always sure of a warm shelter by night, secure from draughts and rain, and impregnable to cats and other foes ; and had never been at a loss for a meal, which is probably more than their wild congenors could say, in a hard frost. The only adventures, so far as I know, that my own birds have experienced, are the following. When I lived at Perranarworthal, one of them — then a young bird, which had been caught wild, and not reared by hand — was somewhat lawless, and would not always come home to roost, though usually it would follow its elder comrade home from the fields. And one night a poor old woman was going up to bed, who, when she reached her room, just caught a glimpse of some black object perched on her bedstead, which dashed past her with an unearthly scream, and vanished out of the open window, leaving her in a state of trepidation and astonishment, easier to imagine than to describe. Shortly after, the same bird managed to entangle some worsted thread round its legs, the ends of which thread got caught in a thorn bush overhanging a small pond, so that the bird was nearly “killed and drowned”; it was luckily rescued by a native, who chanced to pass by, carried to his home, and put in durance vile in a dark outhouse. Thanks, however, to that publicity which is one of the features of village life, whereby the most trivial circumstance befalling anyone is immediately known to every other member of the community, the following day I received news of the whereabouts of the captive ; and on going to bring it back, was gravely informed by the captor, with a sweet simplicity in things ornithological, that he thought it was a moorhen. Since then, this bird has grown older and wiser, and is now as tame and shrewd, and canny, as his companion.
In the British Isles these birds are almost always found exclusively along lofty and precipitous cliffs. Yet this rule is not without exception, seeing that some have recently nested in a quarry on a mountain side in “Wales ; in this instance resembling their foreign allies, thousands of the red-legged, and also yellow-legged kinds, being met with in the mountains of Spain, far from the sea-coast, and vast quantities being also found, it is said, in Egypt. Though scarce in Cornwall the Cornish chough is not by any means an uncommon bird in certain parts of the coasts of Great Britain ; a large and flourishing colony, wholly unmolested, for example, existing at the present date quite close to a well known watering place in the Principality. This shows that the Cymric Celt, unlike his Cornish cousin, is not so mercenary as to place every young bird which can possibly be captured in the way to mope out a brief and unhappy existence, in the keeping of any Jack, Tom, or Harry who will provide the necessary price ; but is good and kind enough to allow the old birds to rear their young in peace : echoing that sentiment and desire of every true lover of birds, which is, or ought to be — Floreat Pyrrochorax Graculus.
Postscript. — Since the above was written, the same bird which met with the previous mishaps, has fallen into more serious trouble. On January 8th, he contrived to catch the toes of his right leg in some wire netting against, the stable window, and when twisting round his body to extricate himself, snapped the bone at the fleshy part of the drumstick. When the disaster -was discovered the same evening, the limb was hanging straight down with toes closed ; the bird was standing on the other leg, evidently in great pain, and such immediately indicated that the bone was fractured. Prompt treatment was necessary ; and the method adopted is here recorded, as possibly useful to some reader for reference. Complete quiet was of course essential, if the bone were to have any chance of setting ; and therefore a large darkened cage was provided, into which the other chough was also placed, to keep the sufferer company. Four splints were hastily cut out of a deal, hollowed on the inside to the shape of the leg, with the ends cut to a point, where they would meet just above the knee ; pitch was melted and applied to the inside of each strip — plaster of Paris would, perhaps, have been better, but none was at hand — and while a servant held the bird with a handkerchief folded round its body to prevent injury to the wings, the splints were placed over the wound so as to embrace the leg, and tightly bound round with tape, over which a coat of melted resin and beeswax was applied. Peck as he might, by no possibility could the bird now either shift the splint or move his leg ; and dieted on sponge cake soaked in milk — he wholly refused meat and even insects — so he remained till the 13th, when his incessant restlessness indicated excessive pain and probable inflammation. An examination therefore was deemed desirable, and accordingly made; half of the leg being laid bare by removing with a sharp knife, bit by bit, everything down to and including the feathers : an operation not without its comical side, for the servant holding the bird was suddenly taken faint when it was about half done, and a fresh domestic had to be summoned, and then it was discovered that the greater part of the flesh was brown and flaccid, and the rest tense and swollen ; in fact mortification seemed imminent. No time was accordingly lost in applying a bandage of linen wetted with dilute nitric acid (one dram to the pint), replaced as often as it became loose, and moistened with the lotion. Two days of this treatment rendered matters considerably more hopeful; the leg resumed its normal temperature ; the gangrenous part became more circumscribed, and a healthy patch of flesh appeared below the wound ; the other half of the splint, which stuck “like pitch,” meanwhile being sufficient to prevent any sudden jerk from separating the ends of the broken bone. On the 18th, a bandage of arnica was put on, and some of the tincture sprinkled over the food. On the 20th it was conjectured that if the bone intended to join at all, it had probably already done so; and since the sooner all pressure was removed, the sooner all inflammation would cease, it was decided to take off the other half of the splint. This proved a work of no small difficulty, but when at last it was safely accomplished, the pleasing fact was established that the bone had united. Gradually life seemed to struggle into the limb, and a powerful relief it was to the patient when, by the 24th, he could rest his right foot, even with toes doubled up, on the perch, and so take some of the bodyweight off the long-ago exhausted left leg. From this time, progress was both rapid and satisfactory; full use presently came back to the joints of the foot ; the bird was permitted once more to fly, and shew that in spite of much handling, his wing feathers were all sound ; within a month from the date of the accident his recovery was complete ; and though the right leg is now a trifle shorter than the left one, he no longer favours it in any way, has quite forgotten all about his injury, and — as he well deserves to be, for his docility and patience under suffering— is as hale and hearty as ever.
 * In a subsequent letter, dated Dec, 1889, Mr. Woods writes — ” I will do my best to send you some young red-billed choughs. The yellow-billed are more common, but both, I understand, build their nests at the sides of the deepest shafts in the mines, and in the natural caverns which abound in the heights,”
And to finish, here’s a lovely image taken yesterday by Barry of eight choughs at Botallack – thankfully, 125 years later, it is not that difficult to ‘come across these interesting birds’. The Rev Malan would be a happy man I am sure.
A Sunday gathering at Botallack