Isle of Man highlights – (1) The Chough

There’s a good good range of birdlife to enjoy on the Isle of Man, but the star of our 2018 visit was undoubtedly the Chough. Pronounced chuff – to rhyme with stuff – the Chough is a member of the crow family. It can be easily identified by its bright red bill, which is slightly down-curved, and paler pinkish-red legs.

Once locally common in the British Isles, the Red-billed Chough – to give this handsome bird its full name – suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Farmers wrongly identified them as agricultural pests and blasted them out of the sky, trophy hunters shot and stuffed them, and egg collectors wrecked their chances of successful reproduction.

However, the final straw was a change in land management practice. Choughs are specialist feeders relying mostly on invertebrates, and therefore need access to an environment that supports their diet, including a mosaic of vegetation with lots of short grass and open areas. Grazing animals are essential to maintain suitable coastal and upland habitats, but a reduction in such grazing activity in the 20th century adversely affected the birds’ food supply.

Thanks to rigorous conservation efforts the Chough is now showing signs of recovery, although progress is painfully slow. The RSPB reports that in 2014 there were 394 breeding pairs spread across the British Isles, up from 284 in 1982, and of these, 30% were found on the Isle of Man. As the figures below demonstrate, numbers of breeding pairs on the island almost doubled between those two years.

 19822014
Isle of Man60118
Wales142215
Scotland7253
England07
Northern Ireland101
TOTAL284394
SOURCE: RSPB Website, retrieved 27/06/2020

Choughs can be found at various locations on the Isle of Man, but when we visited in June 2018 our best sighting was at a coastal site called the Chasms, where the sandstone cliffs are incised by deep fissures. It’s a scenic but exposed and windswept spot, where purple heather, low-growing shrubs and coarse grasses hug the ground to avoid being battered into submission and then unceremoniously deposited into the Irish Sea.

The juvenile Chough is a scruffy-looking bird with less vivid colouration than the adult

The cliff-top vegetation is ideal habitat for Choughs, and we were treated to excellent views of a couple of adults probing about in it for grubs and bugs. There was also a juvenile, a scruffy-looking bird reminiscent of a moody teenager indifferent to his appearance, its bill less brightly coloured than those of adult birds, and its plumage lacking their glossy black lustre. Click the link below to view the short video I made of the Choughs we spotted at the Chasms.

After around 30 years of birdwatching it’s unusual for us to add a new species to our British Isles life-list, so seeing these striking birds for the first time felt like a special privilege. Thank you, Isle of Man!

* * *

Researching this post, I’ve discovered lots more stuff about the Chough, some of it rather surprising. Read on and find out more.

Choughs in Cornwall

Before Covid-19 wrecked our plans, we’d intended to renew our acquaintance with Choughs during an April visit to Cornwall, England’s most westerly county. The Cornish have a special affection for these birds, which, as the table above shows, have made a comeback in the 21st century after becoming locally extinct in 1973.

The Chough was once so common in Cornwall that it was known as “the Cornish Chough.” As such it became a symbol of the county, and featured in the heraldic arms of the County Council and several prominent local families. It also appears on the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall, the private estate of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

File:Coat of arms of the Duchy of Cornwall.svg

The Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Cornwall. IMAGE CREDIT: Sodacan This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Historically the county’s rugged coastal landscape was well suited to these birds: sea caves and old mine shafts offered suitable nesting sites, while the ponies that worked at the tin and copper mines encouraged the proliferation of their invertebrate diet by grazing on the cliff-top grass.

However, the esteem in which these birds were held by Cornish people could not protect them from the combined impact of shooting, egg collecting, habitat degradation and the collapse of the mining industry.

In 1973 Choughs became extinct in Cornwall, and remained absent until 2001 when some vagrant birds arrived from Ireland. A pair of these bred the following year, and with the support of the RSPB’s Cornwall Chough Project, a slow recovery is underway. In 2019 there were 12 successful breeding nests in Cornwall, from which 38 chicks fledged.

An Arthurian connection?

King Arthur, legendary 6th century leader who is said to have defended native Britons against the invading Saxons, had strong connections with Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his story has become intermingled with that of the county’s favourite bird. It is said that after his death, the spirit of King Arthur entered into the body of a Chough. The bird’s red legs and beak are supposed to represent the blood shed by Arthur in his last battle.

Most reasonable folk regard the whole King Arthur story as romantic nonsense, or, less politely, a load of old codswallop.  I’ll leave you to decide whether Choughs owe their distinctive colouration to Arthur’s untimely demise.

Choughs in Heraldry

Whatever we think of the Arthurian connection, it’s clear that in earlier times the Chough was widely known and admired in the British Isles. From the early 16th century onwards it began to appear in the heraldic arms of families with no connection to Cornwall.

Arms of Thomas Wolsey

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Wolsey (and, subsequently, Christ Church Collge, Oxford, which he founded). IMAGE CREDIT: ChevronTango / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Most notably, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and chief adviser to King Henry VIII in the 1520s, commissioned a coat of arms which included two Choughs. This may have been a devout churchman’s punning tribute to the martyr Saint Thomas à Beckett, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who was gruesomely murdered in his own cathedral, reflecting the fact that an archaic name for a Chough is “beckitt.” 

There is, however, a less charitable interpretation. Wolsey’s vanity was legendary, and he cannot have been unaware that the commonly accepted meaning for a Chough in heraldry is “Strategist in battle; watchful for friends.”

How well this describes Wolsey, who, having failed to secure his master’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, died while on his way to London to answer a charge of treason, is questionable. But the cardinal did have a good friend in Thomas Cromwell, who succeeded him as chief adviser to the King. Out of respect for his friend and mentor, Cromwell also included Choughs in his coat of arms when he was awarded the title Baron Cromwell in 1536.

File:Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell (Order of the Garter).svg

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell. IMAGE CREDIT: FDRMRZUSA (talk · contribs). See sourced file for original authors. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

It seems improbable that either Wolsey or Cromwell could spare time from sorting out the King’s disastrous matrimonial problems for a spot of birdwatching, but had they done so they would doubtless have sought the Chough, which so handsomely adorns their coats of arms.

And who could blame them? As we learned on the Isle of Man, it’s a very special bird.

12 comments

  1. T Ibara Photo · July 1

    Hello Mr. P,
    As always, it’s a real joy to learn something new through your photography and writings. Red-billed Choughs are such amazing birds, I am so glad they are making a bit of a recovery. (Isn’t it sad how “humanity” often wreaks havoc on nature and other life forms, and how it is a global phenomenon?) Hope you and Mrs. P are continuing to do well and stay safe.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · July 2

      I’m so pleased you like them, they are very handsome birds. Their recovery shows that there is still hope for species in trouble as long as humanity does the right thing. Credit for the excellent photos goes to Mrs P, but the little video is mine.
      We are both well, thank you, and are getting out a bit more now the lockdown is easing, though we are still being very cautious. What about you… how are things in Japan?

      Liked by 1 person

      • T Ibara Photo · July 2

        Unfortunately (perhaps unsurprisingly) there is a rise on new infections again…
        We too have been very cautious after the government announced the end of state of emergency last month. Frustrating as it may be, we realize that doing our part to stay safe (and use good judgement) is the best we can do.
        As always, our hats off to Mrs. P for her wonderful photography!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · July 3

        Mrs P says “thank you!” 🙂. Please continue to take care, and stay safe

        Liked by 1 person

  2. tanjabrittonwriter · July 2

    Thank you for introducing us to these handsome birds. Their red accents make them look so distinguished. I had the same thought as Takami–how heartbreaking it is to learn about all these species we brought to the brink of extinction. But I’m glad to know their numbers are in the ascendant.
    I hope you and Mrs. P will be able to enjoy a belated excursion to Cornwall at some point.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Platypus Man · July 2

      I’m glad you like them…I was worried that people would see them as “just a crow with a red beak,” but they’re more special than that.

      We have rolled our Cornwall trip over to next year: we’d already paid for our accommodation when lockdown was introduced, and the owners were anxious not to lose our money! So we have something to look forward to – assuming, of course, that the virus is contained (or even better, eliminated, if a viable vaccine is developed).

      Liked by 2 people

      • tanjabrittonwriter · July 2

        Maybe to the casual observer, they will resemble a crow, but to those among us, who love birds, never!

        I hope your travel plans will come to fruition, as that will be a sign of a level of “normalcy” (if such a state actually exists).

        Liked by 2 people

      • Platypus Man · July 3

        Thank you. Who knows what the “new normal” will look like? Not a bit like the old one, I suspect.

        Liked by 1 person

      • tanjabrittonwriter · July 3

        I don’t think anybody knows, but we are bound to find out…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. krikitarts · July 3

    What a great post! I’ve been a fan of crows and ravens for many years, and raised a fledgling raven in Wisconsin and helped him learn to fly many decades ago (we named him Edgar, of course). Your fascinating account of the choughs has brought it all back–thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · July 4

      Thank you, I’m pleased you liked it. And thank you also for introducing me to the Raven. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never come across it before – Poe isn’t taught much here.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ann Mackay · July 3

    Now that’s a bill to be proud of! 🙂 I’m glad to hear that their numbers are starting to rise again. It’s terrible that man is so casual about destroying the other inhabitants of the planet, so this is a little bit of hope.

    Liked by 1 person

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