Chuffed by choughs

Red-billed Chough beside grazing sheep (Martin Kelsey)

A windswept wild call echoes across an acoustic arena of cliffs and ravines. A keen, embracing sound kyyaaah...kyyaah, it rolls and pitches in the same way as its author flies. Red-billed Choughs mirror the waves below western rocky coastlines, with their swell and tumbles and equally in their exploration of the funnels and uplifts of crags and deep valleys in the great mountain chains across Europe, North Africa and Asia and the highlands of Ethiopia.

Villuercas Mountains (Martin Kelsey)

In Extremadura, the bird finds its home in the Gredos Mountains and Sierras of Badajoz province, as well as the sublime Villuercas-Ibores-Jara range in the east. The latter is designated by UNESCO as one of its global networks of Geoparks, for the significance of its landform and geology. The Villuercas (as the entire range is sometimes known in shorthand) breaks above the tablelands south of the Gredos in a series of gigantic ripples, waves which break into dramatic rocky crests of ancient hard quartzites. As I headed to my destination, the twisting road left a dehesa of holm oaks and entered more open sheep pasture.  Two black corvids were busy in the field. Too compact for Ravens, they drew my interest and I managed to find a gateway nearby to stop in. Immediately I could view their sleek jet plumage and ember-red bills and legs: gorgeous, engaging choughs. The generic name Pyrrhocorax means fire raven, which may refer to the vivid colour of their bare parts, although Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey in Birds Britannica describe the mythology claiming the bird as a fire-raiser.

The English name "Chough" is also the old name given to the Jackdaw, onomatopoeic of their call (which is similar to that of Red-billed Choughs, but with a somewhat different tone). Choughs are called Chovas in Spanish and interestingly most townsfolk in Trujillo still use that name for Jackdaws, rather than the more modern name Grajilla

The view before me bore the story of chough ecology. The birds used their long, slender decurved bills to probe deep into the soil, softened by autumn rain. They feed on soil invertebrates and ants.  Beside them sheep were grazing. Their presence provides the conditions that the birds need: short-grazed sward over which the choughs can easily walk and access the soil, enrichened by the herbivore dung. This was a counterpoint experience to that of watching Red-billed Choughs in aerial exurberance, quietly exploring the substrate with just an occasional engaging flick of the wings and contact chat between the two.

Juvenile Red-billed Chough in disused building (Martin Kelsey)

In the crags that rose nearby, this pair would find a cavity in which to nest in the spring, or perhaps in one of the ruined ancient fortifications, medieval towers or disused buildings. As these highland areas depopulate, what humans have abandoned, choughs can take squatters' rights.


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