Julian Hughes is RSPB Cymru’s Head of Species. With the support of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, he joined local nature conservation charity Manx BirdLife on sabbatical for four weeks this spring. Julian assisted the charity by laying plans for next year’s all-Island census of the Red-billed Chough.
Swooping and gliding on the updrafts along the cliffs, Choughs are well adapted to life on the Isle of Man. Walk any coast south of Ramsey or Peel and you can expect to see one – or perhaps dozens flying in formation, outside the breeding season. Rolling and tumbling in the air, few other birds are capable of the aerobatics of a Chough. But did you know how important the Isle of Man is for these special birds?
Choughs are in the crow family, with black feathers, bright red legs and a curved bill they use to probe insects from the soil. The English name – pronounced ‘chuff’ – derives from the ringing ‘chee-ow’ call they make (a friend of mine likens it to a 1980s Space Invaders game). The Manx name, Caaig, is a touch confusing, as the name is also used for Jackdaw, with its black body and grey head.
In northern Europe, Choughs are only found around the Celtic coasts: as well as the Isle of Man, they live in Cornwall, Wales, the Inner Hebrides, Ireland and Brittany, but rarely move between each area. Here on the Island, a few nest in old buildings or mine shafts, but most Manx pairs nest in rocky crevices or sea caves.
Manx BirdLife is the independent Manx charity working to protect the Island’s wild birds and their habitats, so I used their extensive ornithological database to plan a census of breeding Choughs for spring 2024 and I checked historic nest sites all over the Island. This will be the fifth in a series of surveys that is organised every decade or so, to assess the health of the population. In the last census, in 2014, the Island held 160 pairs, one-third of the combined UK and IoM total. Since the turn of the century, Choughs have spread from the southern and central coasts onto the northern plain, where they make use of tholtans (abandoned crofts) and farm barns. Choughs are strongly linked to farming, as they feed on beetles in animal dung and on well-grazed permanent pasture, as well as on stubbles and seaweed in winter. Changes to farming could quickly change the suitability of the land for Choughs.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time on the island, meeting a variety of people and seeing lots of other wildlife as well as Choughs. On a clear day, I can see the Island from my home in North Wales, and when I look across the sea this summer, I’ll be thinking of the warm Manx welcome and the groups of Chough tumbling and calling over the cliff-tops doused in pink Thrift and blue Squill flowers.
- Julian Hughes, May, 2023