In Great Britain we have eight species of crow; that is birds in the family Corvidae (120 species worldwide) which include the Magpie, Jay, Jackdaw, Carrion crow, Hooded crow, Rook, Raven and Chough. I find all crows very interesting creatures, especially when you delve into the wealth of folklore and myth surrounding these black birds which is quite rich throughout Britain. They also happen to be the smartest birds and some species count among the most intelligent animals on the planet as they exhibit self-awareness and tool-making alongside apes and dolphins.
Seeing as I am in Wales at present, deep in Chough territory, I thought that this would be an excellent crow species to start with seeing as it is fresh in my mind. Technically it should be called the Red-billed Chough to distinguish it from the Alpine Chough and (in historical instances) the Jackdaw or to avoid all common-name confusion completely we should stick with the Latin Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax – as that is the whole point of binomial naming. I shall just call it ‘Chough’ though as I can’t be bothered writing out the Latin name all the time (Pyrrhocorax means ‘flame-coloured raven’ by the way) and in case you wondered why I mentioned the Jackdaw it is because they used to be called Choughs (it’s onomatopoeic) and pyrrhocorax was named after it due to its similar call.
The Chough does stand out somewhat from the other crows; despite having the familiar all-black plumage (glossed green) it possesses a striking down-curved blood-red bill and matching red legs. This bold colouring perhaps gave rise to the myth that these birds are fire-raisers; country tales blame Choughs for picking up flaming sticks and putting them onto thatched roofs. The colour also inspired the legend that when King Arthur died on the battlefield his soul entered the body of a Chough and the red bill and legs symbolizes his blood – making it unlucky to kill one. The reason its bill is curved is much more scientific; the bird uses it to probe the short-cropped turf of cliffs and mountains to pick out invertebrates which are its main prey.
The coast of Wales is not the only place you can see these attractive birds; there are territories on the west coast of Scotland, they are widespread along the Irish coast and there is a large population on the Isle of Man. It is strange that they are restricted to coastal habitats in the British Isles while on the continent (they can be found from Spain to the far eastern edge of the Himalayas) they happily abide on mountain ranges far from the sea. The Chough is also amber-listed in the UK due to its small overall population (only 350 pairs in Britain), specific habitat requirements (they need holey cliffs to nest in and short-cropped grassland close-by to feed, because of the decline in grazing across much of its range the Chough has found it difficult to find suitable habitat) and historical declines. This bird was once so common in and associated with Cornwall that it was called The Cornish Chough for a while and can be seen on the Cornish crest, unfortunately it declined until the last pair bred in 1947 but then naturally re-colonised from Ireland in 2001 – the population is small but increasing.
Here in Pembrokeshire I have had quite a few encounters with this lovely bird along the coastline, once a group of ten flew silently high over me before landing on the cliff edge to feed and then another time I heard their distinctive high-pitched ‘caaaow’ before I saw them swooping along the cliffs. They are rather small and slim for crows and in flight most closely resemble a Jackdaw with a wedge-shaped tail and short round wings with five splayed ‘fingers’. They match this wind-swept, craggy and wild coast very well; in fact they seem to positively enjoy being here, I have seen them tumbling and diving and swooping effortlessly through the wind seemingly for fun. Their favourite maneuver is to fly high then hug their wings close to their body in a swift dive close to the cliff before opening their wings again and arcing upwards before landing delicately on the rocks. It is certainly an exhilarating experience walking along very picturesque cliffs and beaches with the wind in your hair and salt on your skin, then hearing a Chough call behind you and seeing a pair flap with ease close to the cliff with red curved bills standing proud from their glossy black bodies – wild birds in a wild place.
Oh and it’s pronounced ‘chuff’ not ‘chow’ by the way, even though it should be ‘chow’ because it is supposed to be onomatopoeic.