Country diary: these confident corvids live life on the edge

Charlie Elder
·2-min read

This is a place of horizontals and verticals – flat grazed headlands, wide horizons and precipitous cliffs. Wind racing in off the Atlantic hits the upright rock faces head on and is deflected by the towering right angle of granite, whistling over the hard edge of this peninsula close to Land’s End.

From where I am sitting, overlooking the crags at Gwennap Head, a flock of choughs are in their element riding this updraught on broad, fingered wings – rising and falling as if for the fun of it, the sea breeze their plaything, their vast bouncy castle.

They are cheerful-looking up close as well, sharp-suited in glossy black, with striking down-curved beak a candy-apple red and strawberry liquorice laces for legs.

Here, beside the busy South West Coast Path, they seem particularly relaxed around people. While corvids are characteristically wary, a pair of these confident crows land just a few metres away, unflustered by my clicking camera, and set to work rootling in the turf for invertebrates.

Theirs is a comeback story. Despite being proudly displayed on Cornwall’s coat of arms, the chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) became extinct in the county by the early 1970s following a sustained period of decline. Out of the blue, after an absence of 28 years, the species naturally recolonised in 2001, with the newcomers believed to be birds of Irish origin, and numbers have steadily increased ever since. But they are still far from common, both here and elsewhere in Britain, nationally numbering just a few hundred pairs. Once more widespread, choughs are now very much a Celtic crow, scattered along the rocky western fringes of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall, and across the Isle of Man.

The vocal flock I am watching spreads out along the sea cliffs, calls ricocheting between slabs of exposed stone – the throaty “Cheeow! Cheeow!” hinting at the origins of their name.

These are birds that live life on the edge, where land and sea collide, foraging on short sward high above the surf and nesting in caves and crevices among the wind-blasted rocks. Tough yet immaculately turned out, their dapper splash of colour and upbeat demeanour give them a style and charm of their own.

Related: Walking Away by Simon Armitage review – the South West Coast Path with a fine comic guide