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The Cornish Chough

The Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) is a member of the crow family with a red beak and legs, and an excitable, high-pitched 'chi-ow' call from which it gets its name. It is extremely acrobatic and its tumbling display flights make a truly impressive sight.

The Chough is included in the county's coat of arms alongside the miner and the fisherman, reflecting the bird's importance in Cornish culture. It also appears regularly in Cornish legend and it is said that King Arthur was transformed into a chough when he died, the red feet and beak representing his violent, bloody end.

The Chough was once widespread around the coasts of Britain but has declined since the early nineteenth century, with only about 300 pairs left, mainly in Wales, the Isle of Man and western Scotland, although a larger population is present in Eire. A decline in suitable feeding habitat is thought to be the main reason for the loss of the chough from England, with many of the well-grazed pastures that were once common along the coast ploughed up for arable crops or overgrown with scrub.

Cornwall was once a stronghold for Choughs, they last nested in the county in 1952, long after they had been lost from the rest of England. As the chough declined, so it became an increasingly prized target for egg collectors and trophy hunters and this may have finally sealed the bird's fate in Cornwall.

Conservation organisations hoping to see the chough back in Cornwall have been working together for a number of years to secure more and better quality chough habitat. It prefers short well-grazed coastal pastures and eats ground-dwelling invertebrates such as ants, beetle larvae and spiders. Its rather untidy nest is built largely of sticks and usually well concealed within a crack in the cliff-face or deep inside a cave.

In 2001 four wild choughs were seen in west Cornwall and three took up residence, leading to hopes that they might stay to breed. Developments were eagerly awaited during the early spring of 2002 and to everyone's delight two of the birds began nesting. By mid-April they had built a nest tucked away out of sight within a sea cave and the female had begun to incubate a clutch of eggs - the first Coughs to breed in Cornwall (and England) for 50 years.

A team of dedicated volunteers provided a round-the-clock watch over the birds to ensure illegal egg collectors could not raid the nest and thereby ruin any chance of the chough returning to Cornwall.

The Cornwall Chough Project was established by English Nature, the RSPB, the National Trust, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Building on the existing work, it aimed to promote the return of the chough to Cornwall through:

  • Encouraging the restoration of suitable feeding habitats for choughs by working closely with landowners and reinstating traditional forms of livestock grazing on coastal pastures.
  • Monitoring and protecting the birds that are already present in Cornwall so that their preferred feeding areas can be identified and improved.
  • Promoting the return of the chough to Cornwall, and raising awareness of how managed coastal habitats benefit our native wildlife.

Cattle grazing the Cornish cliffs provide the ideal habitat for the chough.

It is hoped that by providing more habitat for choughs to feed and breed on, such as that managed under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, this most evocative and emblematic of Cornish birds will be able to make a full natural recovery.

With nearly 100 birds in Cornwall by the summer 2019 the chough is going from strength to strength with grazing along the coast providing more suitable habitat for the species under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society now maintain the dedicated Chough sightings database for Cornwall, adding to the many thousands of records received from birders and members of the public since 2001. Please send your sightings to including date, place, 6 figure grid reference if possible, and notes of any colour rings observed.