From Government of Ireland Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage
The red-billed chough is one of our most charismatic birds but one which is probably most familiar to those living along rugged Irish coastlines. The chough is a scarce bird associated with coastal fringes from Donegal to Wexford. Fewer than 850 breeding pairs along our coastline from Inishowen in Donegal to the Saltees in Wexford – they are very much a bird associated with western Atlantic coastal grasslands.
A member of the crow family, choughs are true invertebrate specialists with a striking and delicate decurved red bill (and matching red legs) designed to probe the top layer of short coastal grasses for insects – liking leatherjackets, spiders and, where they can get them the insects associated with cow pats. To a young chough a cow pat is like a burger! Choughs are totally harmless to livestock and farming activities and are an amazing character of our coastal skies.
Because of their dependence on short-cropped coastal grasslands such as clifftops, grazed cliffs, dunes and exposed islands, the extensively managed and relatively mild Irish coastline provides good feeding opportunities throughout the year and good nesting opportunities on our cliffs. Agricultural improvement has led to chough declines – a century ago they used to occur all around the Irish coastline, including the ‘soft’ eastern coastline from Wicklow to Antrim – they have been extinct in most coastal counties there for more than 100 years and the last remaining pair in Northern Ireland – on the cliffs of Rathlin Island in Antrim – disappeared in 2017.
We need to periodically take stock of the population, to know how they are faring, and to use this information to inform their continued conservation. Holding nearly 60% of the Northwest European population we have a legal obligation to do so.
Aside from having the distinctive red legs and red decurved bill, chough have a buoyant, butterfly-like flight and profile (a little different from other crows), shiny black plumage and a distinctive high pitched ‘cheouw’ call.
Dr Sinéad Cummins, the scientist in NPWS Science Biodiversity Section leading the project said “we are very pleased to be undertaking a national assessment of these characterful birds this year. The data gathered is very important to ensure that Ireland can meet its international obligations to protect and enhance the small and precious population of chough around the Atlantic coastline of Ireland.”
In some areas chough nest inland, away from the coast on inland cliffs, in farm buildings, bridges and abandoned houses. The Survey team would be very keen to hear about any observations people may have of these birds, especially relating to birds nesting in areas away from the coast.