One of the most enchanting members of the crow family is the Chough.
And, thankfully, it is quite numerous all round the Pembrokeshire coast and on the offshore islands where its favourite nesting sites in inaccessible caves, cracks and crevices in the cliff face are abundant.
The uninitiated can mistake this black bird with its wheezing call for its first cousin the jackdaw, but close inspection reveals the difference, particularly when it is seen pecking the clifftop turf in search of soil-dwelling invertebrates like worms, beetles, ants, larvae and grubs. It even likes lichen and will also eat grain and berries on open ground.
Its pink, pointed curved beak and its bright orange legs, reveal its difference from the jackdaw with its straight, black bill and black legs. It is blacker, sleeker. glossier and more beautiful than the jackdaw. The call is different too, and an umistakeable distinguishing feature, for, unlike the jackdaw’s harsh “chack” the chough’s is a somewhat asthmatic wheezing cry, softer and less aggressive.
Another distinguishing feature is its rather erratic, almost butterfly, flight, and it is a shyer bird than its cheeky jackdaw cousin, although just as gregarious. Wherever you are on the Pembrokeshire coast or on the islands, in places where the cliffs provide suitable nesting holes, you are likely to see a chough or two, and sometimes in autumn and winter a small flock on the clifftop sward or enjoying an exuberant aerobatic romp in a boisterous wind, using their long, squarish fingered wings for precise manouevring.
The European population is estimated at 28,000 to 85,000 and the British a modest 490 pairs, although there must be more than a quarter of that number in Pembrokeshire alone. They lay three to five eggs, usually in only one brood, between May and July and have a lifespan of five to ten years, although one hs been recorded at over 16 years of age.
They used to be called Cornish choughs when they were more numerous there than in Wales, but when numbers dwindled in Cornwall a delightful legend was revived that when the chough returns to breed in Cornwall, King Arthur will rise again. The first to breed there in recent years was in 2001, but King Arthur has not arrived yet! The Welsh name for a chough is Fran Goesgoch (Red-legged crow) and the collective noun for these lovely birds is a Clatter. The chough is well protected, with the highest degree of legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Injuring or killing a chough, stealing its eggs or young or destroying its nest can result in a fine up to £5,000 or six months imprisonment. The main threats to the chough population are intensive farming and reduction in grazing near the coast, and the RSPB, National Trust and local Wildlife Trusts carefully manage tracts of coastal land in the chough range to ensure their survival. Peregrine falcons and predatory gulls also pose a relatively minor threat.