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Choughs and Cowpats

Malcolm Ogilvie

ChoughThe Chough (pronounced 'chuff') is an elegant member of the crow family, a little smaller than a Rook and distinguished by a bright red, slightly decurved bill and red legs and feet. It is very agile in flight, helped by broad wings with the primary feathers separated into 'fingers'. A loud ringing 'che-oww' call completes the picture of a most attractive bird.

If you want to see a Chough, you have to travel to Wales, especially Pembrokeshire, Anglesey or Snowdonia, to the Isle of Man, or to Islay and Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides, as these places hold virtually the whole of the United Kingdom population of about 300 pairs. Further afield, they also occur in the west of Ireland, Brittany, Iberia and the Alps.

Chough in flightIslay has long been the headquarters of the Scottish population of the Chough and so it was rather alarming when the results of the 1998 census revealed just 49 breeding pairs compared with 95 in 1986, a sharp drop only partly offset by an increase on neighbouring Colonsay from 7 to 14 pairs. And this decline was during a period when quite a lot of money had been spent on safeguarding several of their nesting sites in old farm buildings. The Choughs on Islay expanded from their traditional cliff cave nesting sites into old byres and empty cottages about 40 years ago and it is essential that these remain as much like caves, both dark and secure, as possible. This has meant expenditure on buildings which would otherwise have been allowed to fall down, or the provision of suitable nest-sites in adjacent structures if the favoured one was renovated for some purpose which rendered it unsuitable for the Choughs.

So as it wasn't a shortage of nest sites causing the decline, investigations have focussed on the food supply. Choughs are heavily dependent on farmland for their food, taking as they do large numbers of leatherjackets (the larvae of crane-flies) as well as the larvae of both dung-flies and dung-beetles. It has been found that cow-pats provide Choughs with excellent feeding at those times of year when leatherjackets aren't available, especially during the late winter and early spring when the birds are feeding up for the coming breeding season. A number of Islay farmers now have management agreements with Scottish Natural Heritage, which pays them to out-winter cattle in areas favoured by the Choughs instead of in-wintering them as is now the common, and usually more economical, practice. This should ensure a continuing supply of cow-pats and thus the continued well-being of the Chough. It is to be hoped that the next census reveals a healthy increase in the number of pairs.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.