A collaboration of coast and countryside organisations on The Lizard Peninsula

Chough chicks

In 2013, Chough chicks were raised by a "champion Chough" male, under the watchful eyes of the Cornish Chough Watch Team. This article describes what happened. 

Since 2001, a team of RSPB volunteers have protected the Cornish choughs, from disturbance both day and night, helping to raise 101 chicks for Cornwall. This year we had nine breeding pairs in Cornwall, five of which we expected to have chicks (the others birds were still too young).

After three years of learning the ropes as the Species Protection warden for the choughs on the Lizard, for once, this March I felt prepared for the usual seasonal routine of our two resident pairs. However, nothing could have prepared us for what this season had in store.

A very cold spring dominated by bitter and strong easterly winds put our local choughs off nesting at their normal time. Here in the Lizard, the younger pair started nesting in early April and were on eggs by the middle of the month, but the original pair, at Southerly Point, hadn't even begun to build their nest at that stage.

It was worrying many of us on the "chough watch team", as these birds were estimated at being at least 14yrs old, so we knew it wouldn't be long until they failed or passed away. Would this be the year they decided not to nest? Just as we feared that they had given up, the pair started hauling in gorse and blackthorn sticks, grass and then cattle hair. It was action stations! After a week of constant building, by 28th April the female had settled on her eggs, a whole month later than normal.

This particular pair had been accompanied by bird throughout the winter and early spring. This third "gooseberry" bird, was a 6yr old single male, who spent his day feeding with the pair and was regularly seen preening with them on the old lifeboat station roof, at Southerly Point. Eventually, when nest building began, the pair saw him off and he went back to his cave further up the coast. With the female on eggs and the younger male out of the way, the original Southerly Point male settled into the arduous routine of feeding the female on the nest. He continued this for three weeks through the foulest weather.

OChough with egg shelln the 21st May, two of us were stood at Southerly Point when one of the choughs flew out of the cave with something white in its bill. It flew out of the cave, right over the public watchpoint and dropped a fragment of eggshell just metres away from us, we knew then that the chicks had finally hatched! Being so cold we didn't see much of the female, she seemed to want to stay in and brood the chicks for fear of them getting too cold, so the male's hard work continued. As well as feeding the chicks and his mate who wouldn't leave the nest, he had to contend with a variety of predators, ravens, carrion crows, gulls and peregrines. As if the job wasn't hard enough, to everyone's surprise on 24th May the third "gooseberry" bird, returned to Southerly Point, this was not a good move! Choughs are extremely territorial and can be quite aggressive towards other birds during the breeding season, this was a move that certainly wouldn't be tolerated by the breeding male, and so it was, the battle began! One of our champion chough watchers Keith Robinson was witness to the two males fighting violently all day. Unfortunately, since that day we have not seen the original Southerly Point male. It is highly unlikely that a breeding chough would abandon a lifelong mate and a nest full of chicks after investing so much energy. It is presumed that the other bird got the better of him and that he is now dead. Having overcome 'the original' Southerly Point male, the younger bird settled in with the existing female and after a few days, it was apparent that he had not only adopted a new mate but that he had also adopted the chicks. To our astonishment he was actively feeding the chicks!{jcomments on}

After a dramatic start, we were soon watching a very familiar routine, we had two adults birds making regular trips out to the fields and back to the nest every 20minutes. Although the other Lizard pair were a little further ahead, they too were regularly feeding their chicks. On the 31st May, Tony Cross, a bird ringer from Wales came down to put colour rings on the chough chicks and check their progress. Unfortunately, we were disappointed to find only two chicks in each of the nests on the Lizard. With the Southerly Point pair being as old as they were and having started breeding so late, it was understandable to find only two chicks in their nest. However, the other younger pair had had three chicks the previous season, so we were hoping for at least three or four chicks in their nest this year. Unfortunately, the two chicks in that nest were severely underweight, and we were told that only one had a chance of fledging. It was not a good day, we realised the choughs were suffering, just like many of the other birds have this season. The extreme weather is playing havoc with insect life, making food harder to source. Although the chough picture here in the Lizard was not looking good, it was quite a contrast to the west coast birds who had a "bumper crop" of five chicks in two of the nests and another two chicks in the nest of a pair of first time breeders which was just excellent.

So what was the difference? The nests here in the Lizard are slightly more exposed to the elements than the west coast sites and would have felt the brunt of the easterly winds, on top of that, the surrounding farmland, having no current tenant, was fast getting out of condition despite our best efforts. There were not enough grazing stock to keep the sward down, so the grass quickly became too long for the choughs to feed and we witnessed them travelling further and further for food, which would evidently put them under more pressure.

It was early June and both pairs, although travelling some distance to find food, were still feeding the chicks regularly and seemed to be doing well. Then to our dismay, between the 8th and 9th of June something dreadful happened! Volunteers on the "chough watch team" turned out expecting to have a lovely morning with the choughs, only to find that the new young male at Southerly Point was feeding the chicks on his own! The Southerly Point female had disappeared. After a few days of hoping and searching, we still had no sign of her and now presume that she died of old age. Quite often birds that have paired for life will die around the same time as one another.

We were heartbroken, and sadly, the story gets much worse before it gets better! On that very same weekend, we also lost the other Lizard pair and their last remaining chick. It is presumed that they were either predated or that the chick attempting to leave the nest failed, and perished, giving the parents good reason to move on. Either way, the hopes for another successful season for the Lizard choughs were almost out of the window. We had one adult remaining and he was now responsible for two young chicks. It would be another three weeks before they could fledge, and brutally the weather turned for the worse. The "chough watch team" sat on tender hooks as they watched the heart wrenching scene of a single chough adopting what seemed an impossible routine of feeding. Travelling at least 40miles a day, through foul weather, he persisted back and forth to the nest. Despite his efforts, the new family's chances were not looking good.

Before the problem escalated, from 'really bad' to 'even worse' the RSPB contacted the National Trust (owners of the surrounding fields) to see if there was anything they could do to improve the chances for what was turning out to be a "champion chough". The trust were saddened to learn the choughs on their patch were doing so badly and after a series of phone calls had arranged for the nearby fields to be "topped" (cut) so that that "champion chough" could get some food closer to home. Within days the single male was finding food closer to the nest and things suddenly became a lot easier. Not only does having a good food source close to the nest site mean that choughs can gather enough food without wasting too much energy, but it lowers their chances of being predated themselves, and also allows them to protect their nests and chicks from being raided by predators too. Still unsure whether the single male would manage to raise the chicks to fledging, the "chough watch team", a fantastic team of both residential and local volunteers, had done all they could to help and now knew, only time would tell.

ChoughOn Wednesday 3rd July, the day we had predicted the fledglings might appear, to our amazement two bold and beautiful chicks popped out of the cave right on queue. It's now Saturday 6th, and the chicks are making their first proper flights around Polpoer cove under the ever watchful eye of a fantastic foster father, and the many captivated visitors and volunteers at the Cornish choughs watchpoint. Complete with romance, tragedy and heroism this story has the makings of a best-selling novel. It is one of the most amazing and interesting stories in the history of Cornish Choughs, rarely has it been documented that an incoming bird would continue to foster the young, and our 'champion chough' has done it against all odds!

The origin of the nickname 'champion chough' needs some explanation. Thanks to a grant from Cornwall Development Company's Local Action Group, over the last three years, we have been working with communities and schools across West Cornwall. Through this grant we developed the Chough Club, a special children's wildlife group. At the last session, I was relaying the seasons events to the children, who needless to say were devastated that the choughs they've been watching for three years had had such a tough time. Surprisingly their reaction to the third "gooseberry" bird was very simple and practical. I thought it was very clever of them and just lovely, so wanted to share it with you all. They said:

"so first he was really really bad, but now he's being very good and working hard to look after the chicks, which is really important for all the choughs, right?" to which I said "yes, now he's being a bit of a champion chough"

Not thinking much more of it, we wandered down to the Lizard watchpoint to see if we could see the single chough. He appeared shortly after we arrived, and they all began to point and cheer "champion chough", it's champion chough!". They were so excited, more excited than I've seen them before. I couldn't believe, that, what I thought was a passing comment would stick with them so well, and now it's stuck with the whole chough watch team. Since Saturday one of the Chough Club kids has been visiting the point everyday to watch over (I quote) "his champion chough". He now proudly exhibits one of our chough pinbadges and the gaze of his binoculars rarely strays far from the chough's cave.

This is a success story that proves, that when we work together we can do so much more. Without the Cornish Choughs partnership between RSPB, National Trust and Natural England, we would not be able to deliver the species protection and habitat management work hand in hand. Likewise, without the help of the third "gooseberry" bird ("Champion Chough"), the Southerly Point pair would not have managed to get chicks number 45 and 46 out of their nest. Having produced 46 young in their lifetime, they have repopulated Cornwall, bringing choughs back from extinction in the area. It is very sad to have lost them, but their place in the history of Cornish choughs stands tall, and hopefully the new foster father will continue to do a good job of raising their chicks. With these two new fledglings, we now have a total of thirteen newly fledged choughs in Cornwall, some of who we hope will survive to raise chicks of their own.

For more information keep an eye on our website: cornishchoughs.org or follow our tweets www.twitter.com/cornishchoughs

Published: July 2013
Author: Catherine Lee, Species Protection Warden, July 2013
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Tel: 07581 194940

Click here for information about other bird species found on the Lizard.