A Chatter of Choughs

Rossbrin Cove: Chough country

Rossbrin Cove: Chough country

One of the many treats of living up here in Nead an Iolair is the frequent appearance of a group of Choughs. Towards the evening we hear them on our roof, chattering to each other. Chatter of Choughs, by the way, is the correct collective noun: all the Corvid family seem to have interesting ones – Murder of Crows, Parliament of Rooks, Conspiracy of Ravens, Tiding of Magpies… These are just some of a very long list: do you of know any to add to it?

Autumn evening at Nead an Iolair

Autumn evening at Nead an Iolair

Choughs are distinctive birds, but easy to mistake for other Corvids when in the sky. Look out for curved red bills, and red legs and claws. Also listen for the chatter, in which the bird tells you its name:

It won’t tell you its latin species name, however: Pyrrhocorax-pyrrhocorax!

Birds on line!

Birds on line!

As an erstwhile resident of Cornwall I have a particular interest in the Chough. This bird appeared on the old Cornish coat-of-arms, together with a tin miner and a fisherman (the two latter have vanished on the new one – perhaps a poignant comment on changing times), and was once a familiar sight on the coast. Changing habitat and trophy hunting led to a decline in the British Chough populations recorded by naturalists as early as the eighteenth century. The last breeding pair was seen in Cornwall in 1947, and not long afterwards the Cornish Chough was pronounced extinct. Amazingly, the new Millennium saw the Chough returning naturally to Cornwall, with three birds taking up residence on the Lizard peninsula and breeding successfully. It’s reckoned that there are now between forty and fifty living on that far western coastline. On my last days in Cornwall before coming here to Ireland I was walking at Nanquidno, near Lands End and – as if to wish me ‘goodbye’ – there was a pair of Choughs foraging happily on the path in front of me! Where did the new generations of Cornish Choughs come from? DNA tests have given us the answer: Ireland…

Cornwall's old and new logos: and the 'Raven King' - in folklore, Choughs and Ravens are interchangeable

Cornwall’s old and new logos: and the ‘Raven King’ – in folklore, Choughs and Ravens are interchangeable

Cornish nationalists, who are campaigning for a devolved parliament, are delighted by the come-back. “This will be seen as a symbol of hope,” said Dr Loveday Jenkin of the nationalist party Mebyon Kernow. “The re-emergence of the Chough is a symbol of the re-emergence of the Cornish nation.”

King Arthur's last battle

King Arthur’s last battle

Cág Cosdearg is the name of the Chough in Irish – this is a literal translation of ‘red-legged Jackdaw’. There are a number of legends attached to this bird: King Arthur turned into one, and the red beak and legs are symbolic of the blood shed at his last battle (presumably this is another link with Cornwall). The Chough was known to Daniel Defoe as a ‘fire raising bird’ in his …tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain…

“…It is very mischievous; it will steal and carry away any thing it finds about the house, that is not too heavy, tho’ not fit for its food; as knives, forks, spoons and linnen cloths, or whatever it can fly away with, sometimes they say it has stolen bits of firebrands, or lighted candles, and lodged them in the stacks of corn, and the thatch of barns and houses, and set them on fire; but this I only had by oral tradition…”

I like the Irish expression, “You’ll follow the Crows for it” meaning that a person would only appreciate something after it had gone.

chough close

Watching our Choughs perform their aerobatics up here is a delight – I’ve seen them turning cartwheels in the air, and they even appear to fly upside down at times. Sylvia Plath puts it wonderfully in 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…”

7 thoughts

  1. Kurt Jackson the Cornwall painter found the Chatter of Choughs or Cag cosdearg at the Cill Rialaig artist retreat on Bolus Head near Ballinskelligs county Kerry a valuable natural asset to his wonderful plein en air paintings whilst enjoying his residency in Ireland some years ago. Being so close to the Skellig bird sanctuary Ballinskelligs has become not only a visitor attraction for humans but perhaps also for the winged tourists themselves.

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    • Thank you, Noelle. The Cill Rialaig retreat sounds idyllic! I frequently met up with Kurt Jackson when I lived in Cornwall: I remember watching him painting one of his enormous canvases out on the cliffs near Lands End – in the rain!

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  2. This is a very special entry Robert. We were in Newlyn a couple of weeks ago – walked past your house and had happy memories. Became obsessed with the tin mines at Levant and now know a lot more about metals and mining than I did. You sound so happy in your new house in that wonderful setting. xx

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