Manx Choughs

Endearing little souls
Endearing little souls

Going through some photographs from last month, I couldn’t resist posting this picture of a Manx chough taken during my visit to the Isle of Man a few days ago. This bird helpfully chose to mob a raven over the cliffs at Peel Hill, and the resulting picture provides a handy sense of scale (below).

It’s hard to think of choughs as crows when they feel so foreign, and there is something uncomfortable about lumping these extraordinary little birds in with an extremely commonplace and everyday family. Choughs are every bit as different from crows in behaviour as jays are in appearance, and the family name probably gets them off “on the wrong foot” with people who want more from their birdwatching than “just a kind of crow”. I have plenty of time and respect for crows in general, but choughs stand out as by far the most charming, delicate and impish. Their aerobatics are astonishing, and there is something wonderfully naughty about their calls over the roar of the sea and the bawling din of gulls.

It seems odd that choughs should be so localised in their distribution, particularly when they appear to prosper in locations like the Isle of Man. As I watched this bird, eight or nine others called and trilled in the bitter wind, and there is no real suggestion on the Island that choughs (while they’re certainly appreciated) are anything out of the ordinary. But they do seem to prosper on terrain that is ostensibly identical to the Galloway coast just a few miles North. I gather that French choughs colonised the Cornish coast under their own steam, so it seems strange that numbers remain at a high level on the Isle of Man but never spread to similar coastlines in the area.

I can think of a dozen suitable sites between Sandyhills Bay and the Mull of Galloway on the Solway coast where habitat seems perfect for choughs, and there is no question that the birds would be an asset. But then it is easy for humans to misread habitats and be proscriptive about how birds and animals should or should not use them. Who are we to tell choughs where to chough?

Incidentally, the Scotsman published a GWCT article about corvid control yesterday, and they used a great picture of a chough to illustrate it. A picture editor had presumably got carried away with Getty Images, and for a moment I thought of writing in to point out the irrelevance of choughs to wader conservation. But then I remembered that errors like this are so ubiquitous and the general public so indifferent to them that my smarty-pants note would be a total waste of time.

A handy reference for scale.
A handy reference for scale.

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