Stephen Colton's Take on Nature: Chough a Celtic coastal fire raiser

A chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) over Islay, north of Rathlin, where the bird has also made a return
A chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) over Islay, north of Rathlin, where the bird has also made a return

WRITING two weeks ago here, of first seeing puffins at the Cliffs of Moher, kindled a longing to visit the Atlantic coast again with its rugged shorelines, precipitous cliffs, and many fascinating birds.

Travel restrictions have understandably prevented such journeys, but the hope is we can again soon get to know these and other special wild places.

An enchanting bird also from that time, which I have missed seeing, soaring on sea updraughts is the chough, a small glossy black crow with long, curved red bill and red legs. It was on the rolling fields near Doolin village and its pier, Co Clare, where I first observed these birds probing the short grassland for grubs with those elegant red beaks, before lifting off effortlessly in Atlantic gusts.

About the size of a jackdaw, this corvid Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, rolls, dives, and tumbles acrobatically in the sky, as it releases its harsh ‘key-aww’ call. Sylvia Plath, American poet describes them so well in her poem, Blackberrying:

Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks

Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky

Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.

Their prominent fingered flight feathers give these masterly fliers a distinctive silhouette as they playfully surf the sea breezes, giving us the Irish name préachán na drochaimsire, bad weather crow. Almost entirely confined to our west, south and northern coasts, another Irish name, cág cosdearg, translates as the ‘red-legged jackdaw’.

The chough’s absence from the east of Ireland stretches as far back as the 19th century, with Kennedy, Ruttledge and Scroope in Birds of Ireland (1954), writing: "The bird last bred in Dublin and Wicklow about 1854 and shortly afterwards ceased to do so in Wexford.’’

There are two species of the bird worldwide, our red-billed chough and the Alpine chough, which has a yellow bill and breeds in the high mountains of southern Europe, a bird I was fortunate to see some years ago, close to the Pasterze glacier, at the base of the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain.

Choughs show strong partner and site loyalty, building their bulky nests of sticks lined with grass on cliff ledges, in caves or crevices, from where they will raise their family of three or four chicks.

As with other members of the crow family, the bird has many cultural links and associated lore. It was considered a ‘fire raising’ bird, blamed for lifting burning sticks and dropping them on thatched houses and barns. 17th century English author Daniel Defoe wrote of the chough: "It is very mischievous; it will steal and carry any thing it finds about the house, that is not too heavy… knives, forks, spoons and linen cloths, or whatever it can fly away with...’’

Folklore says that when the legendary King Arthur died, his soul entered the body of a chough, the blood of battle showing in its red bill and legs.

The chough has particularly strong links with Cornwall, featuring prominently on its coat of arms, flanked by a tin miner and fisherman, all symbols of the region’s history. So common, it was once widely referred to as the ‘Cornish chough’, but numbers declined dramatically until breeding stopped in 1947 with a few birds remaining until 1973 when it finally became extinct there.

Almost 30 years later, in April 2001, a pair of choughs was seen on the Lizzard Peninusla again and successful breeding took place in 2002, these naturally recolonised birds believed to have come from Ireland.

As with Cornwall, this bird of Celtic coasts has also been making a successful and welcome return to our own Rathlin Island in recent years.