Clowns and acrobats

Outdoor Living

LONG ROAD AHEAD A juvenille chough, its feathers still growing, found along the west Mayo coastline. Pic: Michael Kingdon

The cág cosdearg’s hard-won joie de vivre

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

I always thought that if a child had drawn the oystercatcher we would encourage them to swap the fleshy pink legs and hot orange bill for something more likely. A pair of them stood at the top of the tide, glossy black and startling white in weak sunlight, waiting for the waves to recede before going back to feed. Obscurely coloured add-ons aside, these are real west of Ireland birds with wild and lonely wind-driven cries, much at home on our storm-washed, rocky coastline.
Part of me wanted to stay and watch, for there was something about them to suggest they had little ones at foot. Yet behind me was a great kerfuffle of crows, rooks and jackdaws which had congregated along the tideline in the opposite direction. Thinking they were mobbing a fox or an otter, or even a peregrine at its kill, we hurried that way instead. The crowd dispersed at our approach and we found nothing.
But there, like a pair of ragged kites in a gale, were a pair of choughs. If any bird were favourite, cág cosdearg, the red-billed jackdaw, might be the one. Just see how they fly! Though clumsy one moment, the very next they prove themselves splendidly agile. Long fingered wings rip at the wind.
They twist and soar, bank sharply and dive to skim tall grasses. Those comically red bills are agape with laughing cries and the whole bird seems effervescent, about to burst with vitality and sheer enjoyment of life.
We explored then, thinking these birds, while obviously a pair, ought to be breeding somewhere. There were suitable nesting sites close at hand. How about that high bank, prettily adorned with thrift and a smatter of sea campion, where there should be a large splash of guano below any nest, or indeed beneath the place the birds must roost.
Not one member of our crow family is known for meticulous housekeeping. All that can be expected of the nestlings is that they point their rear end rather vaguely toward the rim of their nest before discharging their waste. Any nest, then, should be easy to spot (or smell).
We found a juvenile jackdaw which was obviously far too young to be out of it’s own home.
Still, it looked healthy enough, as if the adults knew where it was and were looking after it. And then we found another of similar size, and around the corner two more, both of which had perished.
There was something about that second bird… I picked it up, much to its evident disgust, and looked at its legs. They were yellow, while the legs of a juvenile jackdaw are black. The beak likewise had a touch of yellow at the gape. I could hardly believe it – a baby chough, the first I had ever seen.
When we looked again at the two dead birds we found they were both choughs as well. How about that then? We thought they must be breeding and here was the proof. But why had these little ones left the nest so early?
It seems that at four weeks of age nestling choughs become quite mobile. Clamouring to be fed, they push their way to the front of the queue until they finally lose their footing and tumble to the ground. The mortality rate is high. From a clutch of four or five eggs the average survival to adulthood is less than two. Of those that successfully fledge only a small number will make it through their first winter.
One hundred and thirty years ago the chough was already becoming scarce. In 1895 naturalist Richard Lydekker thought human interference was largely to blame. From once being relatively abundant, Irish choughs now number in the hundreds of pairs, while those in Scotland are only half as many as we have here. In more modern times chemical sprays and livestock medicines contaminate the invertebrates that choughs feed upon, and through a process of bioaccumulation this impacts breeding success.
In the old days, when the prevalence of straw thatch on roofs inevitably led to a large number of house fires, it was the chough, the so-called ‘fire raven’, that was held responsible. These birds deliberately carried burning sticks and dropped them onto the homes of those who had caused displeasure, don’t you know. One frustrated 19th century hunter protested that the choughs in his area were ‘hard to get within shot of’.
While we focused on cág cosdearg, the oystercatcher pair flew across our path whistling plaintively. “What about us?” they cried. “What about us?”
“Sorry,” I told them. “I only have one pair of eyes.” I never know which way to look.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.