By Fiach Byrne and Ben Porter
Red-billed Chough - Cág cosdearg - Brân goesgoch - Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
What does the name mean?
The Irish name for the Chough (Cág cosdearg) translates to ‘red-legged jackdaw’, while the Welsh name (Brân goesgoch) has a very similar translation of ‘red-legged crow’. This hints at the strong connections that are often found in these two Celtic languages.
Portrait shot of the red-billed chough. Provided by Knowledge Gatherer, Ben Porter.
How to identify the chough:
The red-billed chough has some very distinct features. The chough is small - similar in size to the Jackdaw (Cág), but with a curved red beak, and a pair of red legs to match. The species’ black plumage can also display a slight purple iridescence if you catch it in the sunlight.
Very often, you will hear a chough before you see it, as its call can be heard from great distances. Although they share some similarities in their high pitch, the chough’s call is much more piercing than that of the jackdaw.
Ecology, social dynamics and seasonality:
Choughs are most commonly found in coastal areas, but they are also known to occur in upland areas further inland. They nest in crevices and caves along sea cliffs, as well as in abandoned buildings, quarries, mines, and even in a tanker that had run aground on Inis Oírr of the Aran Islands. 1 Choughs don't just live along the coast, they also forage for insects and worms among washed up Kelp (Ceilp) on the strandline, along dune slacks, and in coastal farmland.
The pastures found in coastal areas of Iveragh and Pen Llŷn are very important to the chough, especially where they are well-drained and south facing. Pastures that are well-grazed by sheep and cattle suit the choughs’ foraging style, where they probe the soil with their curved red beaks. The presence of livestock can also increase the abundance of invertebrates & larvae that depend on dung. Seasonal food sources such as berries and grain are important supplements to their diet. 2, 3
The chough’s breeding season begins around mid-April, when you might see the male and female carrying nesting material to their nest sites. The female incubates the eggs for close to 20 days after they have been laid. She occasionally forages along cliff edges very close to the nest site, but is primarily fed by the male who forages nearby. When the chicks hatch, the male and female leave the nest to forage, returning hourly to feed the young chicks.
At around 6-7 weeks of age, chicks begin to fledge. However, they remain with their parents until they are fully independent and ready to join a flock of immature choughs - around the 11–12-week mark, in the month of July. 1, 3
The LIVE Operation is currently investigating the chough’s winter foraging behaviour in Iveragh, we look forward to bringing you much more on this topic in the coming months!
A pair of choughs collecting nest material on Pen Llŷn. Provided by Knowledge Gatherer,
Myths, legends and folklore surrounding the chough:
In folklore, choughs’ strongest connection is to King Arthur, the legendary British leader - and protagonist of many novels, plays and films. It is said that King Arthur did not die - but was transformed into a chough in his final battle. As his spirit lives on in this species, it is thought to be very bad luck for someone to kill a chough. 4
The chough has also held the title of ‘Cornish Chough’. Its appearance on Cornwall’s Coat of Arms attests to its strong historical connection to the English ceremonial county. This connection was further reinforced by the species’ recent reappearance, when three Irish choughs (through entirely natural processes) 'invaded’ Cornwall in 2001, having gone locally extinct in 1973. 5, 6
Choughs have also historically been accused of dropping burning strands of straw or candles onto rooftops by the English writer Daniel Defoe. 4 On this note, the species’ Latin name of ‘Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax’ translates to ‘Fire Crow’ or ‘Fire Raven’. This name likely stems from the imagery evoked by its red legs and beak, rather than from a love of pyrotechnics or arson that we don’t know about.
A flock of choughs in flight on Pen Llŷn. Provided by knowledge gatherer, Ben Porter.
Special note on Iveragh:
Kerry and Cork are the two main strongholds for the Irish chough population, they host a combined 62% of the chough’s total Irish population.1 Choughs can be found throughout Iveragh’s ‘Special Protection Area’ (SPA), which encompasses the coastal area between Glenbehy on the North coast of the peninsula down to Lamb’s Head in the South. Some of the best areas to locate choughs during the winter months in the SPA include the grazed pastures around Killelan, Bray Head, Valentia Island’s Lighthouse and Tetrapod Trackway, and the Bolus Head Loop Walk. The sand dunes at Derrynane also tend to host consistent numbers of choughs throughout the winter.
A chough with its sand-covered beak in flight over Derrynane. Provided by Knowledge Gatherer, Linda Lyne.
Special note on the Llŷn:
Pen Llŷn is one of the most important areas in Wales for choughs. A number of ‘Special Protection Areas’ (SPAs) and ‘Sites of Special Scientific Interest’ (SSSI) located along Pen Llŷn’s coast are managed specifically to achieve the best possible habitat for the species. As such, you’re in with a good chance of seeing choughs virtually anywhere along the length of the coastal path. The island of Ynys Enlli off the tip of the peninsula is a particular stronghold for the species, typically supporting eight nesting pairs along its rocky coastline, with up to 50 overwintering birds feeding amongst the seaweed thrown onto its shores during winter storms. Elsewhere, the grassland areas around Mynydd Mawr and Yr Eifl are excellent sites to catch a glimpse of this ‘Fire Raven’.
A family of choughs pictured along the coast. Provided by Knowledge Gatherer, Ben Porter.
1. Gray, N., Thomas, G., Trewby, M. and Newton, S.F., 2003. Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax in the Republic. Irish Birds, 7, pp.147-156. download (psu.edu)