Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

French: Crave à bec rouge
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyCorvidae
GenusPyrrhocorax (1)
SizeWingspan: 68 - 80 cm (2)
Length: 37 - 41 cm (2)

The chough is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, listed under Annex I of the EC Birds Directive, and Appendix II of the Bern Convention (3). Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Amber List (medium conservation concern) (4).

A member of the crow family, the chough  (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) is glossy black in colour, with a long curved red bill and red legs, unique in the family. Males and females are similar in appearance, but in juveniles the bill is yellow and the plumage and legs are duller in colour than in adults (2). The most frequent call is produced on the wing, and is a descending 'chiach' (2), which may have given rise to the common name, originally pronounced 'chow' (now pronounced 'chuff') (5).

In the UK, the chough is restricted to parts of Cornwall, the north and west of Wales, the Gower Peninsula, the north coast of Northern Ireland and the south-west Scottish Islands (6). It was once so common in Cornwall that an alternative name for the species was 'Cornish chough', and it features on the Cornish coat of arms (5). This species suffered a long decline, but in recent decades numbers have been increasing; in 2002 it bred in Cornwall for the first time in England for 50 years (7). The chough has a patchy distribution in Europe, the Canary Islands, Ethiopia, North Africa, and across Asia reaching Siberia and China (8).

In the UK, choughs occur in wind-swept coastal areas, but elsewhere they inhabit mountains and steppes (7). In the UK they tend to be associated with low-intensity livestock farming (6), where the turf is grazed short (9).

The chough is an agile flier, and engages in spectacular aerobatics, including fast dives with wings folded back (2). The diet comprises mainly of insects, particularly beetle and fly larvae, which are found by probing the ground or dung with the bill, digging holes, and stone turning (10). They may also hide food underneath stones or plant material, and often perch on the backs of sheep to remove ticks (10).

This species typically breeds in small, loose colonies, but in areas with limited nest sites they will breed singly (10). Courtship involves a display, entailing mutual preening and feeding of the female by the male. The nests are built mainly of dry vegetation, often heather, by the male, and are located on ledges inside sea caves, on sea cliffs, in mine shafts, and in abandoned buildings (10). The female lines the nest with sheep wool, which both sexes help to collect (10). Between two and six eggs are laid, which are incubated for up to 18 days (10). The male feeds both the female and his offspring, and the female helps just before the chicks leave the nest. Young choughs tend to hide under rocks and in holes after leaving the nest, only emerging to feed when they hear their parents. Five weeks after fledging, the choughs become independent (10).

It is believed that one of the factors involved in the decline of the chough was persecution; during the 19th and early 20th centuries, many choughs were shot for sport (10). Changes in agricultural practices are also likely to have played a part, and are still a threat to this species (9).

The RSPB recognises the chough as an important species, dependent on threatened ecosystems. A number of RSPB reserves hold important populations of this bird (7). Research is currently underway in order to compile a conservation strategy, which may involve re-introductions (7). Parts of the Cornish coastline have been managed in ways to create suitable habitat for the species, and the breeding pair in Cornwall receives around-the-clock protection courtesy of RSPB wardens (11). Hopes are that this is the start of the return of this magnificent bird to its former Cornish haunts (11).

For more information on the chough and other bird species:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:
http://www.rspb.org.uk/

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D., & Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  3. Environment Agency (1998) Species and habitats Handbook. The Environment Agency, Bristol.
  4. RSPB (2003) The population status of birds in the UK
    http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/5_20625.pdf
  5. Greenoak, F. (1979) All the birds of the air; the names, lore and literature of British birds. Book Club Associates, London.
  6. RSPB Chough research (July 2002):
    http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/default.asp
  7. RSPB (July 2002):
    http://www.rspb.org.uk
  8. Walters, M. (1994) Eyewitness handbooks: Birds eggs. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  9. Lack, P. (1986) The Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland. T. & A. D. Poyser Ltd, Calton.
  10. Bruce Wilmore, S. (1977) Crows, jays, ravens and their relatives. David and Charles (Publishers) Ltd, London.
  11. NFU Countryside (July 2002):
    http://www.nfucountryside.org.uk/news/showarchivenews.asp?newsid=425