Cornwall – where waves crash against ancient rocks, a winged legend with red legs and a red bill once soared with majestic grace.
Yes, we are referring to the Cornish Chough, a symbol of Cornwall featured on the Coat of Arms, signifying untamed beauty and resilience. Once a common sight in the Britain county, the red-legged chough with coal-black feathers captivated the hearts of locals and wanderers alike. However, over the years, chough sightings have decreased drastically, almost to the brink of oblivion.
Keep reading as we delve deep into the captivating Cornish legend of the chough and explore the enigmatic bird’s historical significance. We’ll also discuss the ecological factors that led to its decline and the relentless efforts to save its habitat.
So, without further ado, let’s dive right in!
About Cornish Choughs
The Cornish chough thrives in short grasslands and coastal heathlands. Member of the crow family, it skillfully probes the earth with its lengthy, red beak in search of insects, like beetle larvae and leatherjackets. Displaying remarkable aerial acrobatics, it emits a distinctive “chee-ow” vocalisation, resembling that of a Jackdaw but louder in volume.
When it comes to nesting, choughs form small colonies and choose cliff faces, rock ledges, fissures, crevices, and even abandoned structures as their abodes. They construct their nests using roots, stems, and heather while lining the cosy interior with wool or hair.
The female chough lays a clutch of three to five eggs, and both parents actively participate in nurturing the hatchlings, ensuring their well-being and growth.
That said, to accurately recognise a Cornish chough, note that it may be 38-40 cm long and boast a wingspan of 82 cm. They mostly weigh 310 grams and live for about seven years.
The Legend Of King Arthur
The significance of the chough in representing Cornish culture is easily evident, as it proudly adorns the region’s Coat of Arms. Perched atop the crest, flanked by a fisherman and a tin miner, it serves as a vivid reminder of Cornwall’s rich traditions. Notably, in the Cornish language, the chough is known as “Palores,” which means Digger, a name that aptly reflects its characteristic behaviour of excavating loose soil to feed on insects.
During the 17th century, in Scotland and Wales, where the choughs were abundant, they were referred to as the “Crow of Cornwall.” According to legend, when King Arthur departed, he took the form of a Cornish chough, with its red feet and bill symbolising his bloody end.
In fact, many believe that the king never died but transformed into a chough, bringing misfortune to anyone who kills the bird. However, it is difficult to determine the true age of this tale, as the legend of Arthur is shrouded in the limited knowledge we have about the Dark Ages.
Causes Behind The Fall Of The Cornish Chough Population
Initially, the decline of the chough was blamed on egg collectors, trophy hunters, and “sportsmen.” However, it was ultimately the changes in farming practices that inflicted significant harm over the long term.
Wild choughs are ground-dwelling birds, relying on their long, curved beaks to extract insects and unearth grubs from the soil. This feeding behaviour necessitates access to open areas of grass that are kept short and provide an abundance of invertebrates.
The clifftop heathlands, the prime nesting sites for choughs, were traditionally grazed by cattle, ponies, and sheep. These grazing animals effectively suppressed the growth of scrub and bracken, allowing other plants and insects to flourish.
However, with the decline of pony carts and the relocation of livestock to inland fields for cattle grazing, the once well-maintained short turf on the cliffs became densely overgrown. This substantial overgrowth limited the chough’s access to its primary source of food, leading to a fall in their population.
By the mid-1800s, nesting activities of choughs in south Cornwall, particularly in the area known as the Lizard, had almost entirely ceased. Moreover, by 1910, the chough had vanished from all southern coastal countries of the UK except Cornwall. Reports indicated that the Cornish choughs no longer frequented their previous habitats along the north coast, adding to the concerns about their survival.
Return Of The Chough
For many years, conservation organisations have dedicated their efforts towards securing a suitable habitat and nest site for the chough.
In 2001, a small group of four wild choughs occurred in west Cornwall, and three of them decided to make it their home. This raised hopes that they would remain in the area and breed further.
The delightful news arrived in early 2002 when a pair of birds initiated the nesting process. By mid-April, they had built a concealed nest within a sea cave, out of sight from prying eyes. The female chough had commenced incubating a clutch of eggs – the first successful breeding of choughs in Cornwall (and England) in half a century!
The Cornwall Chough Project
The Cornwall Chough Project was established through the collaborative efforts of the National Trust, the RSPB, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and English Nature. Building upon existing initiatives, its primary objective was to facilitate the return of the chough to Cornwall.
The strategies of the project are as follows-
1. Creating Awareness
The project aims to raise awareness among the public about the benefits of managed coastal habitats for native wildlife. It emphasises the positive impact on the chough’s resurgence.
2. Safeguarding The Current Population
To monitor and preserve the chough population, the project identified the bird’s preferred feeding areas, enabling targeted improvements to enhance their habitats.
3. Collaborating With Landowners
Landowners are encouraged to employ restorative methods and create suitable feeding areas for Cornish choughs. This involved reinstating traditional forms of livestock grazing on coastal pastures, which provide optimal conditions for the chough’s feeding habits.
Founded in 1987 at Paradise Park in Hayle, Cornwall, Operation Chough is a conservation project aimed at reintroducing and reestablishing the chough population. Initially focused on the successful return of the Cornish chough, the project has evolved to prioritise the long-term sustainability of the chough population in Cornwall.
The project further engages in captive breeding programs for choughs in multiple locations, ensuring that the population of Cornish choughs remain robust and healthy for years to come. If necessary, for demographic or genetic reasons, the birds are released to support and secure the future of the existing population.
Through the collective efforts of organisations, volunteers, and dedicated projects, Cornwall’s “national” bird is slowly but steadily reclaiming its rightful place in the Cornish skies!
The decline of the first choughs, once blamed on changing practices and human interference, has been met with determined conservation measures. As such, these birds serve as a living testament to the power of restoration and the enduring spirit of nature.
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