As part of a national survey being carried out on the red-billed chough, farmers are encouraged to keep an eye out for this rare bird.

The red-billed chough is probably most familiar to those living along rugged Irish coastlines. It is a scarce bird, associated with coastal fringes from Co. Donegal to Co. Wexford.

‘Totally harmless to livestock and farming activities’

According to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), there are fewer than 850 breeding pairs along the coastline from Inishowen in Co. Donegal, to the Saltee Islands off the coast of Co. Wexford. It is a bird associated with western Atlantic coastal grasslands.

A member of the crow family, it is designed to probe the top layer of short coastal grasses for insects – liking leatherjackets, spiders and, where they can get them, the insects associated with cow dung.

The NPWS said that choughs “are totally harmless to livestock and farming activities and are an amazing character of our coastal skies”.

“Agricultural improvement has led to chough declines – a century ago they used to occur all around the Irish coastline, including the ‘soft’ eastern coastline from Co. Wicklow to Co. Antrim,” the NPWS noted.

“They have been extinct in most coastal counties there for more than 100 years and the last remaining pair in Northern Ireland – on the cliffs of Rathlin Island in Co. Antrim – disappeared in 2017.”

National survey on this rare bird

From April to July this year, KRC Ecological and ALC Nature will be running a national survey of these birds on behalf of the NPWS.

“We need to periodically take stock of the population, to know how they are faring, and to use this information to inform their continued conservation.

“Holding nearly 60% of the north-west European population, we have a legal obligation to do so.”

The NPWS added that aside from having distinctive red legs and red decurved bill, the bird has a “buoyant, butterfly-like flight and profile [a little different from other crows], shiny black plumage and a distinctive high-pitched ‘cheouw’ call”.

Image source: Kendrew Colhoun, via Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage

Dr. Sinéad Cummins, the scientist in NPWS Science Biodiversity Section leading the project, said that the data gathered “is very important to ensure that Ireland can meet its international obligations to protect and enhance the small and precious population of chough around the Atlantic coastline of Ireland”.

In some areas, chough nest inland away from the coast – on inland cliffs, in farm buildings, bridges and abandoned houses.

The survey team said it is keen to hear about any observations people may have of these birds, especially relating to birds nesting in areas away from the coast.