Shugville's chough diving over the sea.

The Most Impressive Bird In Flight? Chough Aeronautics Are Inspirational.

If there is reincarnation then I'd happily come back as a chough. These clever birds are masters of the sky where sea meets land.

Choughs - The Ravens Of Fire

The aerial acrobatics of red-billed choughs is always something to behold especially viewed in their chosen habitat of windswept cliffs on the west coasts of the U.K and Ireland. The way they navigate the air against these dramatic backdrops of vertiginous rock and broad expanses of sea and sky, never fails to lift my spirits. Of all the birds, they seem to revel most in the sheer pleasure of flight for the sake of it, their celebratory cries loudly asserting this notion.

Their scientific name pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, literally means fire-raven. Another earlier latin tag was incendiaria avis (incendiary bird) . Oral tradition from Cornwall, where they were kept as pets, extended their mischievous habit for taking things from around the house, to stealing ‘bits of firebrands, or lighted candles, and lodging them in the stacks of corn, and the thatch of barns and houses, and setting them on fire’ (‘A tour thro’ the Whole Island Of Great Britain’ by Daniel Defoe). So their synonymity with fire seems steeped in behaviour observed as a domesticated bird, not a wild one, and being part of the corvid family of birds, share their reputation of hoarding inanimate objects, especially shiny ones.

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Their ebullient character and deeply-fingered squared wings remind me of witches on their broomsticks. The feathers emulating the tattered black robes of folklore and their cries echoing the excited screams of agents of the supernatural. However, their playfulness on the wing and jauntiness on the land dispels any link with the dark arts. 

Where Land Meets Sea

I wanted to capture the dramatic twist and dive move they routinely evince, the glossy blue sheen of their feathers, and their brilliant red beak that gives them their name of Palores in Cornish, meaning ‘digger’, as they use this long and curved proboscis to probe the ground for invertebrates. You can see the blueish lustre of their plumage and fantastic red of their bill, legs and talons in the photograph my wife took of a pair in Ireland that we chanced upon in a rare intimate moment of spousal preening. This scene’s allegorical significance is heightened by the fact that the pair bond in choughs is monogamous and of a long duration.

Together Forever
A couple of choughs in Ireland groom each other on a stone wall.

It is a truly unforgettable chance encounter on the Canary Islands’ La Palma that will always stay with me.

Shugville - looking out over the mountains above the cloud line.
A Chattering Of Choughs
A chattering of choughs flies over the sea in La Palma.

It is a truly unforgettable chance encounter on the Canary Islands’ La Palma that will always stay with me.

A Chattering Of Choughs

My wife and I had spent the day hiking around the volcanic highlands of the island, where the astronomical telescopes pepper the landscape like space-age monoliths. As we made our way back towards where we left the car, we heard the unmistakable ‘chee-ows’ of red-billed choughs. We were on a path just above a clear and mildly sloping part of the rocky and pine tree covered landscape that made its way steadily down to the sea. Without quite believing our eyes we saw a flock of around 100 to 150 choughs whose collective noun is unsurprisingly called a ‘chattering’, whirling slowly towards us, energetic dark atoms flowing amongst the scintillating flashes of light emanating from the sea. We watched them avidly from the vantage point of the slope as they approached, darting through the pine trees and coming into land on a sheer and rocky part of the terrain not more than 100 metres or so away from us. 

 

Final Reflections
A huge chattering of choughs flies over the mountains of La Palma.
A chough stands alert in a rocky landscape.

Feeling euphoric from walking through this strange and other-worldly environment and now witnessing this spectacle, a momentary thought came to me that if I were dead I would be happy for my body to be offered up to these amazing birds as Tibetan Buddhists do to the vultures in their sky burial ritual. What a way to go…..