CHOUGHS: CORNISH BIRDS FLOCK TOGETHER
PUBLISHED: 20:14 19 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:18 30 August 2017
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Birdlovers who have flocked to Lizard Point this year to witness a story of love, tragedy and single-parenthood in Choughs
David Chapman joins the birdlovers who have flocked to Lizard Point this year to witness a story of love, tragedy and single-parenthood
For the last thirteen years a pair of choughs at Lizard Point has captivated the hearts, enchanted the minds, givenhope and brought people together from every part of Cornwall and many parts of the world. But the breeding season of 2013 was exceptional with events which were almost as historical as the year the choughs returned to Cornwall.
The chough was once widespread around the coast of Cornwall and was very much associated with the county, often referred to as the Cornish’ chough and appearing on the Cornish coat of arms. Its decline was first noted in the 18th century and was due in part to collectors taking their eggs but also to the decrease in grazing around theCornish coast. Choughs continued to breed in Cornwall up to the middle of the 20th century but their final nesting attempt was in 1947.
'2012 was a record year for productivity with 18 young choughs fledging from five nests and 2013 was a record year for nesting attempts with nine pairs of choughs making nests though only four pairs successfully raised thirteen young choughs to fledging'
Cornwall was the last English county in which choughs could be found but they continued to survive in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, though declining. Towards the end of the century a concerted effort was being made to reintroduce grazing to the coastline of Cornwall to encourage a greater diversity of natural history, this helped to correct the habitat making it more suitable for choughs.
Then by chance three wild choughs found their way to the Lizard from their home in Ireland in 2001. Thanks in part to the renewed coastal grazing efforts they found suitable habitat and two of the birds settled down to breed near Lizard Point in 2002 and they have bred there every year since.
The Cornwall Chough Project was established to help protect the birds and round the clock surveillance of their nest site was carried out by volunteers. The next milestone was in 2006 when a second pair bred on the Lizard and then in 2008 when a pair bred in West Penwith. 2012 was a record year for productivity with 18 young choughsfledging from five nests and 2013 was a record year for nesting attempts with nine pairs of choughs making nests though only four pairs successfully raised thirteen young choughs to fledging. Over the last 12 breeding seasons 101 young choughs have fledged in Cornwall.
The big story from 2013 came from the Lizard pair. At the start of the season all seemed normal with the regular pair sitting on the usual nest of eggs watched by a steady stream of people at the chough watchpoint. But all of that was to very sadly change. Spending a lot of time around the Lizard was a much younger male, born in 2007 at a nearby nest he was the offspring of a pair containing the female who was the third original bird arriving in 2001.
This male chough had previously paired up with a female and had nested twice, in 2009 and 2010, but he had sadly lost his mate later that year. Between 2011 and 2013 he had unsuccessfully tried to attract another mate but in the spring of 2013 he decided to muscle in on the settled relationship of the original Lizard pair.
One day in the spring of 2013 he made a prolonged attack on the older, established male, an attack which it is thought led to the death of the older bird. The aim of the younger male was to attempt to pair up with the female but if events so far had been sad things were about to become even worse.
'The young male, who was no relation to the chicks decided to stay and rear them himself! He successfully raised two youngsters to fledging and they left the nest in early July.'
Ten days after her partner had disappeared presumed dead the female also disappeared. It is thought that she too had died. It seems far too romantic a notion to suggest that she died of a broken heart but as Claire Mucklow, manager of the Cornwall Chough Project, told me: “It is often the case with life-long bonds the other bird diessoon after a mate goes.”
The drama was not about to end and possibly the most exceptional behaviour was still to come. By the time the female chough disappeared her youngsters were on the nest but near to fledging. The young male, who was no relation to the chicks decided to stay and rear them himself! He successfully raised two youngsters to fledging
and they left the nest in early July.
I spent a couple of fascinating hours watching him with the two young birds in July. I found them on the cliffs above Kynance Cove; he was showing the youngsters how to forage for grubs in the cattle muck whilst they sat on top of the piles of dung watching him and calling for food. He led them northwards along the coast, they flewas a tight group in distinctive chough style with buoyant, wheeling flight and constantly calling to each other.
On top of the cliffs to the north of the cove they rested and found time to preen between periods of feeding. The male demonstrated how to probe the turf quite violently with his beak, a technique which led to the local name of the chough: Palores which means digger’. The youngsters still couldn't find food for themselves seeminglyfinding it impossible to discriminate between food and other matter.
Once or twice I saw the young birds playing with and even swallowing bits of earth or rabbit muck, mistaking it for food. There was a constant clamour from the youngsters to be fed by the male. He was incredibly busy and regularly found grubs which he stored in his crop until he had a few to feed to the youngster who was most demanding at that time. The greatest excitement was generated when the adult found a cocoon of what looked like an oak eggar moth. He attempted to break the cocoon by smashing it against rocks in a similar way to which a song thrush might break open a snail shell but before he could extricate the larva from its case the two youngsters were excitedly pecking away at it with him.
Shortly afterwards a peregrine called from overhead. The two young birds were oblivious to the danger but the male sat on a rock and called repeatedly to try to warn them of the threat. The choughs were probably safe because they had become accustomed to my presence and were quite confiding. I wondered whether the male had chosen to feed quite close to me because it made him feel safer, there was little chance of a peregrine attack with menearby.
It will be interesting to see what happens at the Lizard next year. Will the new male attract a mate and use the same nest? Whatever happens, as Claire says: “We should be grateful for the efforts of a huge number of people, the 100s of volunteers who give their time to watch over the nest sites of the choughs and monitor their
movements around the coast, the farmers who manage grazing animals around our coastline and the staff of the RSPB, National Trust and Natural England who continue to work all year round behind the scenes for
these most Cornish of birds.”
We should also be grateful to the pair of choughs who made all of this possible, who brought so much joy to the lives of so many people. Although in a way this has been a sad year for the choughs maybe the events
of 2013 make this a good time to reflect and renew our efforts, we must make sure that their legacy is the permanent return of the chough as a breeding bird in Cornwall.
Cornwall Chough Project
The RSPB work in conjunction with Natural England and the National Trust to increase the amount of suitable habitat around the coast, working with land-owners. They safeguard nest sites through the coordination of hundreds of volunteers, monitor the population of choughs and promote awareness of the birds to the general public.