The official coat-of-arms for the county of Cornwall features three endangered creatures: a fisherman, a tin miner and a red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax).
Until very recently, two of these three creatures (the tin miner and the chough) were considered to be extinct in Cornwall, whilst the third (the fisherman) was disappearing fast.
In her excellent book, A Natural History of Land's End, Jean Lawman describes how the last resident chough vanished from Cornwall in 1973. However, shortly after her book was published in 2002, a pair of choughs nested successfully on the Lizard peninsula. According to the Cornish Chough Project, the birds probably originated from Brittany. Four years on, a small but thriving population seems to have established itself around Land's End.
When we visited Cornwall in May 2006, Liz and I were thrilled (chuffed?) to spot a lone chough near Boscregan. As it flew past I instantly recognised its characteristic piercing call "keeyaa!". The sound took me back a quarter of a century to the summer I spent working on the RSPB nature reserve at South Stack. I saw and heard choughs virtually every day for 9 months, so I became very familiar with the species.
When Liz and I returned to Cornwall this September, we had regular sightings of two pairs of choughs: one in the Boscregan/Polpry area, the other around the old mine workings at Botallack. It was a real treat to watch them, although I never got close enough to take any decent photos. I am grateful to Brian Mottershead for allowing me to use the picture above. Katie Fuller also has some pictures of Cornish Choughs on her blog.
So what makes red-billed choughs so special?
For starters, they are very handsome birds - their iridescent blue-black plumage contrasting sharply with their scarlet bills and legs. They're also full of character: gregarious and garrulous... inquisitive and intelligent... extrovert and exuberant... and sometimes downright comical.
For me, the chough's most appealing characteristic is its fondness for staging impromptu aerobatic displays. Like their close relative, the raven, they are often to be seen twisting, turning and tumbling through the air for no apparent reason. Watching them, you get the distinct impression that they're simply having fun: joie de vivre with feathers!
These aerobatic skills probably also serve a practical purpose. The chough's main predator is the peregrine falcon, an aerial hunter famed for its speed and prowess. The ability to twist and turn so nimbly has doubtless enabled many choughs to evade the peregrine's 200mph stoop.
At Polpry Cove we watched a pair of choughs mercilessly teasing a young peregrine in flight: repeatedly swooping down to within pecking distance, but skillfully remaining out of stooping range.
So what of those two other endangered species: the tin miner and the fisherman?
An appeal to twitchers
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the Land's End peninsula is the only place in the UK were you can see all seven members of the crow family.
A few linguistic notes
The word 'chough' is pronounced 'chuff' (i.e. rhyming with rough and tough).
Dictionary.com defines a 'chuff' as "a rustic, a boor or a miserly fellow". It also says that 'chuffed' means both "delighted; pleased; satisfied" and "annoyed; displeased; disgruntled".
When a British person says that he or she is "chuffed to bits" it usually means they are "absolutely delighted".
In Yorkshire Dialect, the word 'chuff' has a stronger meaning. In and around my hometown of Sheffield, 'chuff' is used both as a insult and as a euphemism for the word 'fuck'. Referring to someone as an "daft old chuff" is roughly equivalent to calling them an "silly old fart". Older residents of Sheffield often use expletives such as "chuff off", "chuffing" and "chuffing hell".
'The Chuffinelles' were a political cabaret act created by the late Linda Smith during her time with the Sheffield Popular Theatre.