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200-Year Absence of Red-billed Choughs Ends in South-East England

After a 200-year absence, red-billed choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) have been reintroduced near the famous white cliffs of Dover in south-east England.

Choughs are members of the crow and jackdaw family and are known for their red bills, red legs, and distinct calls. Elizabeth Corry from Wildwood Trust, a local conservation charity, describes them as “blackbirds on steroids” due to their larger size and vibrant red bills. However, the choughs have faced decline over the years due to intensified farming and historical persecution.

According to the latest data from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, there are approximately 394 breeding pairs of choughs in the UK, mainly found in Cornwall, north Wales, and the Isle of Man.

Leading the reintroduction project are Corry and Laura Gardner, in collaboration with Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust. The choughs are raised in creches, a method of hand-rearing that familiarizes them with humans without causing negative imprinting. Gardner explains, “We use a black glove and tweezers to mimic the chough mother’s head when feeding them. We also play audio playback to them to simulate begging calls when they are hungry.”

The team is employing three different tracking devices to monitor the birds, including “daily diary” tags that the choughs wear like backpacks. These tags contain an accelerometer, a magnetometer, and a barometric pressure sensor. Jess Stevens from Wildwood Trust highlights the advantages of this technology, saying, “The data it provides is super detailed. We can zoom in and observe each individual behavior.”

The tags will offer valuable insights into survival rates, migration distances, and potential nesting sites for the choughs.

Over a span of five years, the team aims to release 30 to 50 choughs. However, they anticipate some losses due to predation. Their goal is to establish a population of 15 breeding pairs within a decade. If successful, these birds could eventually cross paths and breed with choughs from Cornwall in south-west England. Corry emphasizes, “We want to support the entire UK population of choughs.”

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