What is a chough? Why do they need help? How is Jersey Zoo helping them? We will try and answer these questions over the next few days. So lets start with the first question.
What is a chough?
There are two species of chough (pronounced ‘chuff’) in Europe. The Alpine chough, as its name suggests, lives in the Alps.
The red-billed chough can be found across Europe, northern Africa, and as far as Tibet in Asia. Despite having such a wide range, the population of red-billed chough is in decline. There are now less than 500 breeding pairs in the UK mostly confined to the west coast where the nest in sea caves and crevices.
So why are choughs struggling when their relatives, the crows and magpies, appear to be doing so well? One reason is the difference in diet.
What do choughs eat?
Choughs are specialist invertebrate feeders. As their name implies, the red-billed chough has a red bill! Why is it red? I don't know. The important thing is that the bill is long and slender to allow the bird to probe in soil and animal dung looking for insects and larvae.
They particularly like leather jackets, which are the larvae of daddy long legs, ant eggs, and dung beetle larvae. Check out the photo below of a piece of sheep dung. It is crammed full with insects. The choughs use their bills to dig in and prise apart the poo. A happy chough is a grubby chough!
What habitat do choughs need?
To see choughs feeding in the wild you need to be on coastal grassland where the grass is kept short due to grazing or manual cutting. This provides the perfect habitat for the type of insects the choughs are looking for. It needs to be coastal grassland because choughs nest in sea caves or deep crevices along cliffs between the months of February and July. During this time they tend to stay close to their nest site and therefore need good quality habitat to provide enough insects to feed themselves and their chicks. It is why they also have another name, the ‘sea crow’.
What threats do choughs face in the wild?
If there are not enough insects in the ground the choughs will starve. Modern farming practices such as pesticide spraying and regular worming of cattle reduce the number of insects available. The bigger problem dates back several decades ago when people abandoned their coastal farmland in favour of more profitable, less demanding farming inland. Abandoned land is left to grow wild and plants like bracken takeover. Bracken spreads wide and far blocking sun light getting to the ground making the soil inhabitable for many insects. It also physically blocks birds like the chough from getting to the soil.
This is the main reason the choughs in Jersey, in fact the entire Channel Islands, died out almost one hundred years ago. In all that time there have only been a couple of unconfirmed sightings. Possibly of individuals going astray from the small population in Brittany or simply another species entirely. People often mistake oystercatchers, blackbirds, and jackdaws for choughs.
Another threat choughs faced, and still do today, was by people collecting eggs as a hobby or stealing chicks to raise as pets. This was very popular in Victorian times.
It is now illegal to take eggs, chicks, even to take a photo of a chough nest without a special license. In 2008 RSPB officers prosecuted a man in England who had 7, 000 birds eggs at his home including chough eggs.
A few years ago Jersey Zoo took up the challenge to return the chough to the island. Tomorrow we will explain how we did this using skills developed in Mauritius with birds such as the pink pigeon and echo parakeet. Below is a short video about how Jersey Zoo has helped species in Mauritius.
1) Can you name three insects choughs love to eat?
2) Why are choughs also known as 'sea crows'?
3) Apart from the chough what other bird species has Jersey Zoo helped save from extinction?