This red-legged, red-billed member of the crow family earned itself the name ‘Cornish chough’ because of its close association with the Duchy for several hundred years.
There can be few instances of such a close association between a people, a place and a bird. Even today, the chough’s symbolism for Cornwall can be easily found for it features on the coat of arms, proudly sitting on top of the crest flanked by a tin miner and fisherman as a striking reminder of the Cornwall’s proud traditions. The chough’s Cornish name, Palores, means Digger, a reference no doubt to its habit of digging away at loose soil to find invertebrates.
In Wales and Scotland during the 17th Century, where choughs would also have been common, the chough was known as the Crow of Cornwall. Legend has it that the soul of King Arthur departed this world in the form of a chough, its red feet and bill signifying Arthur’s violent and bloody end.
Several naturalists were already noting the decline in numbers of choughs in Cornwall at the end of the 18th century. They were concerned that the birds were suffering at the hands of sportsmen, suppliers of natural history specimens and trapping.
However, trophy hunters were not the only problem. The steady degradation of the chough’s preferred habitat – grazed cliffs and heathland – played a major part in the demise of the chough in the county. In past centuries, sheep, cattle and ponies would have grazed the cliffs all year round, keeping vegetation short and open, providing perfect conditions for chough to find a supply of insects such as cranefly larvae, dung beetles and ants.
The removal of stock to inland pastures, where they could be managed more easily, meant the cliff slopes soon scrubbed over and choughs found it increasingly difficult to find suitable feeding areas. Nesting had all but ceased in south Cornwall and the Lizard by the mid 1800s.
By 1910, the chough had disappeared from all southern coastal counties of the UK with the exception of Cornwall, but even here there was concern that it was doomed to extinction, with reports that former haunts on the north coast remained unfrequented.
The year 1947 saw the last successful nesting attempt in Cornwall. An ageing pair of choughs lived near Newquay between 1960–1967 but one of the pair was found dead in March 1967. Its partner patrolled the cliffs alone until 1973 when it too, the last of the Cornish choughs, was seen no more.
For the next 28 years, choughs remained absent from Cornwall; the only recorded sightings being of a few birds passing through or escaped from captivity. The natural return of choughs to Cornwall in 2001 changed all that!