What is a chough?

What is a chough? A chough is a black bird with a long red bill and red legs and is a member of the corvid family along with crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws.

Why are they known as Cornish choughs?  Cornwall was once the stronghold for choughs in England and they are known as Cornwall’s national bird (Cornwall is a Celtic nation). The chough appears on Cornwall’s coat of arms along with 2 other important figures in Cornwall’s historic heritage – the miner and the fisherman. They also appear in Cornish folklore with stories that surround King Arthur.

Why did they become extinct in Cornwall? It is believed that the choughs became extinct (late 1900’s) in Cornwall due to a number of factors such as abandonment of grazing on the coastal fringe meaning loss of feeding habitat, egg collecting, trapping and shooting.

Have the wild choughs in Cornwall been reintroduced? No. The choughs that are found in the wild here in Cornwall have not been reintroduced. A few pioneering birds got here all by themselves and have gone on to found this Cornish population.

Where did they come from? DNA tests have found that the choughs that arrived here in 2001 almost certainly came across from Ireland. In 2012, another Irish bird turned up on the Scillies and most years we see new, non-Cornish birds appearing around the coast. Excitingly, a chough from Brittany has also been recorded recently (Spring 2014). There is currently a non-Cornish bird in the population of breeding pairs.

How is the population doing? Really well!  The survival rate of the choughs in Cornwall is very good and we are very pleased with the steady increase in numbers of pairs. Please see the facts and figures page for details.

Do you have concerns about their limited gene pool? All the wild choughs in Cornwall are very healthy birds and they produce very healthy offspring. Our monitoring work shows that each year new choughs turn up in Cornwall, some of these are now beginning to stay for longer so it will not be long before they recruit into the breeding population and the gene pool is expanded.

Is there a need to reintroduce choughs? There is no need to reintroduce choughs because the population is healthy, increasing, and more birds are arriving naturally to supplement their numbers. Choughs from Wales are now regularly being seen along the North Devon coast, and along the East Devon coast too, which is very encouraging.

Where do they nest? Choughs nest in sea caves, deep cliff crevices, mine shafts or adits, and disusedbuildings. Unlike ravens and crows their nests are safely tucked away from the worst of the weather and predators.

How many eggs do they lay? Choughs usually breed at two years of age and lay 2 – 5 eggs depending on age and experience.

Do choughs migrate? Choughs are non-migratory. They live here in Cornwall all year round. In winter they might range a bit further than during the breeding season. Young birds can move considerable distances (from Lizard to Newquay in a day for example) as they explore and set up their own territories.

What is Chough Watch? The best time of the year! In the spring and summer, our team of Chough Watchers keep watch over nests and monitor how the birds are doing to help us keep track of the growing population of choughs and keep them safe.

Why do you carry out nest protection? For a few reasons. We want to give them the best chance of breeding successfully and the coast is a busy place so we try to minimise any accidental (or deliberate) disturbance to their nest sites. Due to their rarity they could also be targeted by egg thieves. Egg collecting, though illegal, is still a problem in the UK and we want to make sure sites are safe. Choughs are a Schedule 1 species on The Wildlife & Countryside Act so they have special legal protection during the breeding season making it a criminal offence to intentionally disturb them.

What do choughs eat? Choughs mostly eat invertebrates, and in particular crane fly larvae (leatherjackets), beetles, caterpillars and ants. The invertebrates associated with dung pats are very important and an easy food source especially for young choughs as they learn where the best places to feed are. In winter, choughs love to forage in stubble fields for split grain and other seeds.

Why do you ring the choughs? The choughs in Cornwall are colour-ringed as nestlings by a licensed specialist ringer. Ringing helps us keep a track of their survival, their movements, and the interactions they make with each other. Ringing has been invaluable in helping us track how a natural recolonisation plays out and helps us identify new birds that arrive apart from Cornish born birds.

How does grazing cattle on the cliffs help? Choughs use their long curved bills to dig for invertebrates and require easy access to the soil. Shorter swards and nice open cliff top grassland with some bare patches is perfect habitat for them. Cattle and pony grazing is the most environmentally friendly way of keeping an open mosaic of shorter and longer vegetation, helps keep scrub in check and provides dung for invertebrates to colonise.

Where else can choughs be seen in the UK? As well as in Cornwall, choughs are found along the coast of Wales, on Islay and Colonsay in Scotland, on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland and they are also on the Isle of Man.

What is the survival rate for young choughs? Not all choughs that fledge make it to adulthood. We estimate that a third of the youngsters will make it through to their first winter, which does not sound brilliant but is in fact a very good survival rate. Weather conditions and food availability along with natural predation are the main factors influencing survival. Young birds also seem to do better when they can join up with older birds and learn from them. HOWEVER, the past few winters survival rate has been 2/3’s.

Where can choughs be seen in Cornwall? Choughs can now be seen all around the Cornish coast for example; The Roseland, the Lizard, Mount’s Bay, West Penwith and Cornwall North coast.

Formally known as Red-Billed Chough, for visitors from mainland Europe: German: Alpenkrähe
French: Crave à bec rouge
Italian: Gracchio coralline
Polish: Wronczyk
Spanish: Chova piquiroja
Dutch: Alpenkraai

The collective noun for choughs is: a chattering or a clattering

More information on choughs can be found here

Chough Leaflet